Saturday, May 28, 2005

An Issues Issue

This is how David Edelstein starts off his review of Mad Hot Ballroom and A League of Ordinary Gentleman:

The documentary Spellbound was a masterpiece of pop sociology that broke through to a wide audience. Now, in its wake, distributors have been scouring the festivals for docs that build to similarly nail-biting climaxes. As copycat trends go, this is pretty exciting. Unlike their vacuous TV reality-show cousins, these indie documentaries not only catch you up in complicated human dramas, they weave in themes of class and cultural diversity.

I'm not that big of a fan of vacuous TV reality shows, but I know enough about them to see that Edelstein's criticism of them is unfair and untrue. At least half of it is: the staged events that drive the reality TV shows might not qualify as "complicated human drama", but many of them, including The Amazing Race, Wife Swap, and the last Apprentice season, are chock full of "themes of class and cultural diversity". And of course my favorite example of reality TV, which, because I am a big snob, is the British show Faking It, has a premise that is downright driven by "class issues".

I know Edelstein is using a standard critic's gambit--knock down something popular in order to prop up something more obscure (I know I do that on occasion and I'm not even a proper critic)--but it seems to me that he's making a rather silly assumption: because he doesn't like reality TV shows, there's no way they can deal with issues he cares about, like class and cultural diversity.

Now, I don't mean to say that Edelstein should become a big fan of reality TV shows: most of them do stink to high heaven and I'm sure that the two documentaries he's reviewing are a much more worthwhile way to spend your time. The real problem is that Edestein makes the kind of boneheaded mistake he's usually sharp enough to avoid: in this case equating "Dealing with Class/Cultural Issues"=GOOD and "Not Dealing with Class/Cultural Issues"=BAD.

The fact that many reality TV shows actually do deal with class and cultural issues doesn't, by itself, make them any good. And the fact that a well-meaning Spellbound-style documentary deals with class and cultural issues doesn't, by itself, make it any good either. And (for completeness's sake), the fact that a reality TV show and/or a well-meaning Spellbound-style documentary might not deal with class and cultural issues does not, by itself, make it bad.

Perhaps a better way for Edelstein to put it would be something like: "These documentaries explore class and cultural issues with more insight than you'd get in the average reality show." And a more honest way to put it might be: "These documentaries reach the same conclusions about class and cultural issues that I hold."


Later on in his review, Edelstein writes that

One reason I hate the fact that my just-7-year-old daughter watches American Idol (long story) is that I don't want her to think about competition yet. I don't want her to see people being judged—and in some cases, ripped apart. Yes, that sounds odd coming from a critic—but these are people who aren't rich and famous and in some cases are getting torn apart with a camera in their face.

Maybe he should check out the positive stuff Steve Sailer has to say about Idol:

One of the great things about "American Idol" is that you don't have to possess Madonna-like drive, assertiveness, and ruthlessness to do well, as you normally do in the music business. Natural talent will get you a lot farther on "American Idol" than in the real world of music, where whom you'll sleep with plays a big role. (Nobody much cared that judge Paula Abdul was exposed as sleeping with a male contestant a couple of years ago, but it would presumably destroy the show if one of the two male judges was caught in a scandal. A lot of judge Simon Cowell's appeal is that he'll tell pretty but talentless girls to get out of the business for their own good, which is not what powerful men in the music industry are known for always doing when confronted with hot babes desperate for a break.) For example, the first year's winner Kelly Clarkson had gone out to LA for a year, but had totally failed to get anywhere, so she went home discouraged to Texas. But she still had near-Whitney Houston / Mariah Carey quality pipes, so she triumphed on the show.

Although I guess that's still something a 7-year-old doesn't need to know about...

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