On Christmas Eve, my daughter and I finished the thirty-third season of Survivor, Millennials vs. Gen X. There had been some awkwardness earlier in the week as a dinner guest had suggested that Reality TV was idiotic, a charge we fully understood but we were unprepared to accept as we began the period of mourning until the next series (Survivor:Game Changers) arrives in March. She carried the objection to the next level. “You don’t actually think those shows are real, do you?”
Hmmm. Real? The farthest reaches of reality remain unmapped as far as I can tell, and the line between fiction and creative non-fiction is fairly fuzzy. When do we participate in the real and when do we replicate the real? How much of all that we see and know is a rough approximation of all that is? Aren’t we all actors? You know, on a stage? Are we more “real” when unobserved than when in the company of others? All those photos we save and trade were taken with cameras, ostensibly in order to capture something “real” to fuel our memory. To Thy Own Self Be True, etc., but which self? Which selves? The ones we show or the ones we hide?
Look, I’m more than willing to discount the worst of the soul-soiling, exploitative, voyeuristic crud that travels under the flag of reality television – the celebrity hookup, breast augmentation, bizarre addiction, abusive dance mom, toddler exploitation, temptation island flesh peddling orgiastic bachelor hot tub shows – although cramming them all together would make for some irresistible tv – and, I’m willing to believe that most home makeovers and restoration projects run grotesquely over budget and take months longer to complete than promised, that extreme weight loss may not be easy or permanent, that relatively few storage units contain DaVinci’s long-lost sketch book, that bounty hunting is probably not a viable profession, and Hulk Hogan probably does not know best.
I have been shamed on occasion for investing time in So You Think You Can Dance, Project Runway and Top Chef, shows that allow me to admire contestants for skills I do not and cannot posses, shows that allow me to see invention, resilience, and grit under difficult circumstances, and shows I can watch with every member of my family. But I’m tough. Bring the slings and arrows; I can withstand the chivying of high-minded devotees of everything British on PBS.
Fortunately, however, my last lingering concern about losing credibility as a thinker and human was abandoned as I read The Folded Clock, A Diary by Heidi Julavits. Julavits has written three of the novels I most admire, The Effects of Living Backward, The Vanishers, and the astounding The Uses of Enchantment. I give these novels to friends sure in the knowledge that they will become as devoted to Julavits as I have become. Her diary, The Folded Clock, reveals the fascination Julavits and her husband, noted novelist Ben Marcus, have with The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. So, OK. I’m not alone.
I happen not to be hooked at the moment, but I have watched at least two seasons of The Bachelorette in their entirety, unable to turn away from the impending train wrecks, clinging to a mildly desperate hope that reason would prevail, that character would matter, that in some fashion propinquity would bring the first tender shoots of true love.
I’d dipped into both shows on occasion, usually in response to a colleague’s strongly expressed opinions of one contestant or another, but I found the bachelors too uniformly predatory and the bachelorettes tooconsistenty needy. Enough of both to go around in my daily life. I remain immune to The Bachelor; how many triumphant, self-congratulatory fist-bumping broments can any one viewer endure? I haven’t returned to The Bachelorette since I had been won over by one bachelorette who stood apart from the vacuous, preening, laminated crowd. I’d forgotten her name, but as the magazine of record, Time Magazine, maintains a description of every season, I recalled Ali Fedotowski.
Alexandra Fedotowski was clever, articulate, poised, sunny, kind, and vulnerable. She had grown up in Williamstown, a town we knew well, graduated from Mount Greylock High School, and earned a degree from Clark University in Worcester. Unlike many of the bachelorettes, Ali had a real and promising career, and despite having reached the final four in the “competition”, had chosen to leave The Bachelor in an earlier season in order to return to her job as an account manager with Facebook in San Francisco. The Berkshire Eagle’s Meghan Foley broke the news of her succession as the next Bachelorette arguing that,”…her sexy, raspy voice and good looks made her a fan favorite.” And she was.
I’d like to say that this exceptionally grounded, balanced, small town girl traversed the seamy corridors of the Bachelorette man hunt with discretion and dignity, but courtship in the public eye brought her to a familiar and tawdry finale. She threw herself at a bachelor who wasn’t interested in her, causing her fans to scream, “Can’t you see he’s not into you?” It was high school all over again. “What on earth does she see in the jerk?” But the train had not completely left the track yet; there were choices left to make, and seemingly credible partnerships to be had. In the end, this intelligent, educated, competent young woman walked into the sunset with a shambling, mumbling, former minor-league ballplayer, Roberto Martinez, known to popular columnists as “Hottie McDimples”.
Do I believe that all that Alexandra Fedotowski went through was real? I do. And beyond that, I believe that this cheesy, goopy contrived mess was worth wading into if only to remind me of the equally compelling reality that even off camera, people make truly awful decisions on a daily basis. Whatever unsolicited opinions I and countless viewers held, Ali, herself a person of substance, walked away from substantial contestants to frolic with Martinez whose ideal woman models swimwear and bakes cookies.
As I consider the ragged arc of friends over the years and family at times, it seems clear that the heart wants what the heart wants. In some cases it’s worked out; both of my sons found their true love with the first real drive around the block. In other cases, wreckage and collateral damage is still mounting. Lacking a complete set of instructions and finely calibrated behavioral adaptation, we fumble a bit, perhaps a lot, make the best of situations that surprise us, try not to wallow in self-pity or puff up with grandiosity. Nevertheless, virtually all of life comes at us at full speed and without benefit of rehearsal.
I’m grateful for any help along the way, and I’ve been given more than my share by a generous universe. There have been wise and caring counselors and mentors, but there have also been books that arrived at exactly the right time. I’ve walked out of the theater transformed by a film or play that challenged my convictions. Documentaries, dance performances, photographs, music – each has allowed me to see the world as a bigger, more vivid place. And, against all expectation, these too-loudly hyped televised facsimiles of reality provide unexpected rehearsal for life.
I don’t want wax too ethereal in defending my fondness for Survivor; it’s essentially the adventures of a mismatched multi-generational Swiss Family Robinson marooned on an unaccommodating island, scheming to be among the final few at the end of the competition. I’m aware of my own soft dependence on domestic comfort as I watch each season. I don’t have what it takes to eat grubs and worms; I’m never going to volunteer to huddle under a palm frond during a typhoon. I’m not built for adventure, but I do appreciate adventure second-hand. There are life lessons galore having to do with loyalty, gumption, friendship, and betrayal, but the bottom line is pretty much always survival, and I’m aware that I take the advantages of my cosseted life for granted.
There are worse things that setting out to be a survivor with the basic tenets of humanity intact, and in times of challenge such as these, I intend to use the lessons I’ve learned at a distance to outwit, outplay, and outlast.