That’s right, we’ve given our senior contributor, James Arnold, his very own weekly opinion column. He’ll be destroying, lauding or haranguing whatever takes his fancy. You have been warned.
So, reality TV. Already I’ve lost some of you, either because you’re expecting hateful diatribe or dread a defence. There’s some hate coming, I’ll admit, but I promise it’s born of disappointment at wasted potential, rather than that I just like hating popular things. Mostly. Let’s also be clear, I’m not discussing pseudo-reality rubbish like Geordie Shore or Made in Chelsea – those are beyond salvation no matter which way you slice it. No, today we’re going to take a second look at the nation’s favourite game shows, The X-Factor, The Apprentice, The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing… you get the idea. I believe that there’s something salvageable, perhaps even worthwhile, beneath the tripe that plagues Saturday evening television this time of year.
So, let us begin at the beginning: why are these shows so awful? Admittedly, that varies from show to show, but they all have their roots in the wrong place. The X Factor is a show where, for the first bit, we’re invited to laugh at people who foolishly believe they can sing until the judges whittle away the field to however many acts it is these days that they conclude have potential. Then, through a careful process of mutilating well-loved songs via terrible covers, grind every corner of individuality off to leave a perfectly mass-marketable product to score a Christmas number one before sodding off into well-earned obscurity. Or, to phrase it another way, it’s an amateur singing contest and it really, really feels that way, particularly when the show focuses on the people rather than the music they’re supposed to be making. You know what I’m talking about here, the way the show asks you to give a damn about how mediocre Generic Contestant’s life is and the fact that he dedicates his songs to his deceased spaniel, rather than the fact that the really mediocre thing is his bloody singing. No, you’re not supposed to notice that, it’s Simon Cowell’s job, because there’s nothing to drum up phone line activity like the very rich man putting the uninspiring singer down is there?
Worse is when the amateurs aren’t competing for a nice big juicy prize, but instead are competing to try and make you remember that they exist. That’s right, next up are the celebrity shows. These are irredeemable anyway because celebrity culture is a corrosive, toxic ooze on the floor slowly burning through our soles. That rant aside, these shows are essentially the same as those that came before except for the fact that the contestants are normally worse and come with a pre-investment in their success for certain pockets of society. Fortunately, the fact that participating in this drivel is a flying kick to the testes of any credibility the supposed celebrity had means that this genre is dying out. With one notable exception. I’m looking at you Strictly Come Dancing and I’m loathing every minute you spend on every television in the country. With your atrocious band covering songs I actually quite like, and your supposedly famous people pretending to be professional dancers trying to make me care about them even as much as the turd my dog left outside my room during the night. Oh ho ho, I’ll get to you Strictly Come Dancing, I promise, just let me finish this preamble first.
Then there are also those shows that aren’t angling for phone-ins and just want the viewers. This means that the contestants don’t need to garner your support. In fact, the show runners seem to think that, if the people are as detestable and useless as possible, it will make the best television. You’ve already guessed it, wheel in the next defendant. It’s time for The Apprentice to take the stand. The wasted potential here really galls me. I’m not sure if it just ran out of ideas or it thought bringing in the most emotionally stunted, two-faced, egotistical rodents ever to lie on a CV really was the right idea. Either way, it’s made the show unbearable to watch, at least according to my brain cells, huddled up and crying in a corner of my skull.
“Hey, you said this wouldn’t just be an onslaught of hate”, I hear you reprimand me. True I did, so let’s save some brain cells. I think this entire genre of television could be made into something not only tolerable, but worthwhile, with a little shift in emphasis. Now, I don’t really have much of an interest in cooking (stay with me) so whilst I can’t say I’m a fan of Masterchef, I can certainly point to the fact that it does reality TV a whole lot better than the rest of the tat I’ve listed. If reality TV shows were school children, Masterchef would be a bit of a scruffy git and not very interesting, but at least he’s not at the back sniffing glue and shoving colouring pencils up his nose like the failures at the back. Masterchef (excepting the celebrity version, which needs to shove its head in a gas oven and light a match) does what these other shows claim to do but focuses on something very different. It doesn’t try to tug your heartstrings or offer up drama but instead just shows people being good at cooking and competing to be the best cook.
This is not to say that Masterchef is doing everything right. No, it still carries around some of the trappings that I particularly despise in reality TV. In particular the “pause”. I know you know the “pause”. A key element of these shows is the slow but steady elimination of contestants, and you know the producers just live for that dramatic pause that comes after the words “the person going home is…” Stop it. Stop it right now or I’m going to smack your bottom. It doesn’t engage me and I doubt it really adds anything even for a reality TV addict – you’re just being melodramatic and its unnecessary. Just get it over with, the elimination isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) the focus of the show. The focus of the show is (or at least should be) the people being good at things, in Masterchef’s case that’s cooking. And herein lies the key, reality TV can and should be aspirational.
Okay, that sounds a bit weird I know. I’m suggesting that what I’ve been saying is lowest common denominator entertainment should be something to aspire to? Not quite. I believe that reality TV should be about people who are good at something competing to be the best at the thing with the entertainment coming from rooting for your favourite and the professional opinions of expert pundits. Yes, I realise I just described sport. But isn’t that what these shows really come down to. Let’s return to those big three I was determinedly ripping apart earlier and piece them back together under my new regime.
Let’s start with The Apprentice because that’s easiest. It’s all about candidate and challenge selection. Firstly, imagine the contestants weren’t all hot ego balloons with absolutely no genuine talent or charisma, but were instead well-rounded and competent individuals – you know, like real people. In fact, let’s not make them real people, but people with an actual flair for business or logistics or salesmanship and, here’s the key bit, all capable of actually working in a team to accomplish a shared goal. Then let’s not give them stupid challenges they can’t reasonably be expected to accomplish and instead give them inventive and difficult business tasks that require them to be the good, productive team that we’ve replaced the self-important earwigs with. So instead of asking them to be a “man with a van” for a weekend or write a children’s book, you challenge them to take on projects where they’re solving problems rather than creating them. Imagine an episode where Lord Sugarbaby tells them they’ve been contracted to transport a shipment of stuff that he’s bought to his warehouse, for the least amount of money possible. The challenge is that the stuff is in Japan and the warehouse in Exeter and the game is to balance cost and speed. There’ll be negotiations with transport firms, route planning and possibly even some legal questions. I know I’d rather watch that than some klaxon-voiced moron fail at running a pound shop.
I’m back, Strictly, and I still despise you. But I am going to save you. Before we begin, though, you’re getting rid of those pointless celebrities and replacing them with proper dancers. Now, I have less time for dancing than I do for cooking so I would probably never watch Strictly Come Dancing even after I’ve fixed it, but I do have a plan. Like I said, we’re now going into this with proper dancers, so already the skill level has jumped significantly. After that the format can basically stay the same but with a little change, rather than assigning the dances each week arbitrarily you give each couple the choice, but with a limit on how many times they can do each dance. Depending on the number of weeks the show runs for, give them one of each dance and a wildcard, which introduces the tactics of choice. Each couple will know their strengths and their weaknesses, so do you save your killer moves for the final or use them to get a boost early on? Also, you don’t want to chose the same dance as your opponents, so have it so that each week the loser picks first then work your way up the list. Better than watching Jeremy Vine shamble about, no?
And last of all, The X Factor. Oh, X Factor why do you use your powers for evil? Do you know how many talented acts there are out there struggling for a break? Why not shed the amateur nonsense and open your auditions to everyone who dreams of the big time as they sound check in the upstairs studio of The Local Arms? Stop trying to make a perfectly inoffensive pop princess to the judges tastes and let the contestants pick their own music, write it if they want, play their own instruments even? There will be so much more variety, so much more interest. I’m not asking you to accept the anarchist punk collective or the screaming heavy metal, I know you have a demographic, but why not have a rock band or two? Maybe a rapper or a DJ? Stop suggesting that forcing a musician out of their comfort zone is necessarily good idea, the only reason it’s required on your show is that all your acts are the same. So much so that you have to make them sing terrible Queen covers just so that you can tell them apart. Less homogenous, more experimental, more varied. You could do some real good, you know? Give some struggling talented musicians a platform and maybe even expand your audience’s musical horizons a little. Is that too much to ask?
I suppose it is. But a man can dream of a world where reality TV is a force for good, or at least decent entertainment rather than the modern equivalent of a Victorian freak show. Maybe I’m crazy, but at the very least a small part of me feels better that the next time you switch off on a Saturday night to one of these toothless, parasitic sequences of flashing pixels a little voice in the back of your head will notice that it could be better and you’ll watch something on Netflix instead. Maybe.
Are you a die-hard ‘Strictly’ fan and want to defend the programme? Or do you agree with everything James has said? Let us know in the comments.