Tuesday, March 25, 2008

And now for something completely different.

A couple of years ago, an MIT student of my acquaintance had a brief run-in with reality TV, in the form of a recruiter for "Beauty and the Geek". Faced with a remarkably persistent hollywood type with a clipboard and a questionnaire, he decided the quickest way out was through, and obligingly filled out the form, including the question (surely of immense use to the producers), "What is your greatest fear?" His response: "Being made to look like an ass on national TV by the producers of some dumb reality TV show."

What brings this to mind is Bravo's new series, "The Real Housewives of New York". Each episode begins with Alex McCord, an actress, graphic designer, and aspiring (oh, how breathlessly aspiring) socialite, intoning that "To a certain group of people in New York, status is everything." The rest of the hour is devoted to making five of them, including McCord herself, look ridiculous.

Not, mind you, that the women themselves make this terribly difficult. The one who seems most down-to-earth, oddly enough, is LuAnn de Lesseps, a countess by marriage who cheerfully flaunts the title at every opportunity. (She's got her own TV show, broadcast on UHF in the Hamptons, called "The Countess Report".) LuAnn at least knows how to enjoy being privileged. The rest are shown, in no doubt carefully selected awkward moments, carrying on like the characters from Seinfeld --- or rather, how those people might carry on if someone mixed in a burning, insatiable hunger to see their names on the society pages, and a hearty dollop of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's $580 million real-life trust fund. It seems unnecessarily cruel to actually name whose major snits at minor slights are worthy of George Costanza in couture, or whose social scheming rises to the Krameresque. Besides which, it's just unnecessary. You'll spot them soon enough.

The producers, naturally enough, aren't doing them any favors. If the pervasive air of extravagance isn't obvious enough from the shot selection, they slap price tags on just about everything in sight, to drive the point home. (Purebred puppies are expensive! Who knew?) But when thinking about this, consider how a big-screen TV and an SUV would look to someone from Kenya. We've all got our extravagances. As for what's getting left out, you could make an interesting little video intercutting the haute couture shopping sprees (thousands for a dress for opening night at the opera!) with this "Countess Report" clip of her excellency and friends genuinely gushing over the $24.99 "killer shoes" they found at the Hamptons T.J. Maxx. And think about how plausible it is that they really never talk about anything other than themselves --- which is all that makes it to the screen.

And, of course, always remember that anything really worthwhile that anyone connected with the show might be involved with has probably been edited out.

Still and all, it would be nice to see the perspective of a few more typical New York housewives. The kind who, offered tickets to opening night at the opera, would be thrilled --- who'd show up wearing their very best $300 outfits from Macy's, and leave talking about nothing other than the music.

There were a few late edits to this piece to try to put the focus a bit more on the editing that creates the screen personae here; it's more interesting than the personae themselves...


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