COMMENTARY | A steady diet of reality programming has raised the stakes on what is TV-worthy. Anderson Cooper spoke out Monday about a teenager who, in anticipation of his appearance on Cooper’s show discussing the teenage brain, hit his head skateboarding and lapsed into a coma, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Meanwhile, “Real Housewives of New Jersey” star Jacqueline Laurita abruptly quit the show, announcing that she thought a castmate was set up to be publicly embarrassed; she People reports she refused to participate in the reunion.
Real reality is pretty boring; to bring in viewers, it requires all the elements of any story: plot; conflict and characterization. Before the reality TV explosion, a show like Cooper’s would reflect the world as it was found, but now the subjects think they understand the rules, whether in an informative, news-style format, as is the case with Cooper, or as the glossy entertainment capsule of the “RHNY.”
For viewers, drama is key. With reality, we are no longer talking about fictional people, we’re dealing with actual lives. In fiction, the drama lasts as long as the episode takes to film; when it’s real, it can have lasting, even permanent, consequences.
This issue arose with the alleged suicide of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” cast member Russell Armstrong. Yet the series marches on with the macabre overcast of the suicide, feeling more like an Edward Albee play than a reality show.
In the case of Cooper, the show did not cause or contribute to the boy’s injuries; the teenager was tasked by producers to bring in footage of him doing the “crazy stuff” he normally does. According to Gawker, both the teen and his parents were working with the show, and he would not have been able to tape himself. It is also unclear whether he wore a helmet, though the head injury implies that he did not.
But the lure of a TV appearance may have clouded the judgment of the boy and his parents, ratcheting up the risk in what they may have perceived as more interesting television. While it makes a statement on the pull of the limelight, it certainly does not exclude his parents from the responsibility of maintaining their child’s safety. Nor does it shift the burden to the show.
At the far-more-forced end of the spectrum, Laurita’s abrupt exit underscores the modern freak show nature of much of today’s reality programming. She decided that she’d had enough time on the stage and quit. Intriguingly, though, the person alleged to have been set up, Melissa Gorga, has not taken a similar stance.
The pursuit of attention itself has reached a revered status in our culture, even when it’s clear, as with Laurita, Armstrong, and now this boy, it is not as shiny as it appears in the distance. It is certainly not worth the health of a child, the sad fact likely sitting heavily with that boy’s parents right now.