Lessons from The Surreal Life

I happened upon a marathon of The Surreal Life last night on KTLA Los Angeles the WB station that we inexplicably receive as part of our digital cable.

In case you have missed the show, or the PR surrounding it, it’s basically “urban Survivor for failed celebrities.” Or, as the show’s website puts it, “when the stars fall from sight … this is where they crash.” Or as their PR says “[a] tongue-in-cheek, yet surprisingly human, take on the lives of celebrities whose stars aren’t exactly burning bright these days.”

Among the cast are musician MC Hammer, former teen star Corey Feldman, former 90210 geek Gabrielle Carteris, Mötley Crüe’s lead singer Vince Neil and TV’s “Webster,” Emmanuel Lewis. In other words people whose name you know, but who haven’t heard about for a while.

Somehow — I haven’t quite figured out the rules of the game, or even if there’s a game — these people all live in a swanky house in Hollywood together, and perform various Survivor-like tasks. It’s bawdier than Survivor, and because of the location, less isolated from “real life” (which, in this show, is a difficult thing to put your finger on).

The programme is one of a new crop of “reality TV” shows that includes I’m A Celebrity ? Get Me Out Of Here (starring, among others, Robin Leach and Joan Rivers’ daughter Melissa) and Celebrity Mole: Hawaii. Each places a group of has-been stars in a house (or jungle) together for some period of time, without makeup (or dignity). And we watch. Presumably our appetite for watching regular everyday people do this has waned, and we’re now in need of a new level of “reality” to entertain us.

Aside from the rather depressing tawdriness of all of this, I think there are some interesting lessons to be learned, chief among them is that the people we venerate as “stars” are, without their makeup, just as screwed up as regular everyday people.

While I was growing up, the only time we got to see stars in “realistic” situations was on game shows like Match Game and Hollywood Squares.

Except on those shows, the stars were in more of a “hyper-reality,” reading scripting jokes, and acting like buffoons. Think Charles Nelson Riley or Paul Lynde if you need your memory jogged.

Today’s shows, while certainly much less like my everyday regular “reality” than not, do give us some insight into the condition of being a star. And it’s not a pretty site. Listening to Corey Feldman grouse with his fiance on the phone, or argue with MC Hammer about the time he’s spent in the bathroom, or witnessing a blow-out about the proper location in their remote Australian locale to go and take a pee in the middle of the night on I’m a Celebrity doesn’t exactly replicate “real life,” but it does do an effective job at showing us how thin the “fourth wall” really is.

After watching two hours of The Surreal Life, I was ready to sign up for duty as a full time iconoclast, for I was forced to reason that if these Gods could so easily tumble from grace, surely all of the others that we venerate — police, politicians, priests, judges, parking metre cops, teachers — must be equally as fallible. And not deserving of our mindless respect.

For a crop of television shows to so effectively drive home that point, night after night, can’t be an entirely bad thing.


Johnny's picture
Johnny on February 24, 2003 - 21:04 Permalink

When I worked in a restaurant in downtown Vancouver about six years ago, I served lunch to MC Hammer and his family one time. They seemed like nice folks. Hammer asked me if he could get a refill on his Coke. I asked if Pepsi was ok. Hammer, who had done commercials for Pepsi a few years earlier, replied, ‘That would be great. Just great.’

Alan's picture
Alan on February 24, 2003 - 21:15 Permalink

surely all of the others that we venerate — police, politicians, priests, judges, parking metre cops, teachers — must be equally as fallible. And not deserving of our mindless respect.”