I've recently discovered this television channel that I didn't know existed. It's called Zone Reality, and it showcases events that have actually happened, and people who are real and, more often than not, seriously moronic, sometimes to the point of being deranged. This is the kind of channel you discover while idly fiddling with the remote (or rather, while my husband's idly fiddling with the remote) when your regular shows are over, and you want to be sure there's nothing interesting going on before you switch the TV off. After the initial couple of days of watching Reality, which mostly consisted of my tossing sardonic and superior remarks in the general direction of the TV, I found myself, to my increasing horror, actually getting curious, interested, what have you, in a couple of shows. The one I actually sit through is called 'Cheaters' and, as the name suggests, is about Americans (who else?) who call this show and get them to investigate their spouses/partners who they suspect are cheating on them. It's corny, tacky, sordid - but I still watch it if I come across it. I suppose there's nothing left but for me to admit that yes, I possibly am a closet voyeur.
But see, I cannot possibly be the only one. This show's aired nearly every day, and there are loads of people who call these guys, which means there must be lots more watching it. So what is it about these reality shows that appeal to people? Reality television is quite the buzz word these days after the furore over Shilpa Shetty and Celebrity Big Brother - and everyone was interested, even the ones who wrote about how incredibly tasteless the show was, and how it appeals only to the lowest common denominator. I know we all have the option of switching off the TV - but we rarely do. Why? Does it have to do with mere voyeurism, the guilty pleasure we all experience at being allowed a glimpse into someone else's secrets, salacious and otherwise? Or is it a genuine curiosity about human nature, about the way people across the world, people we'll never ever meet or know, lead their lives?
Take 'Cheaters', for instance. I find myself actually getting involved with what's happening on the show, with the people - who are all ordinary, often from the lower end of the socio-economic hierarchy - on the show. 'She should leave him,' I remark to my husband, or 'How could he be so dumb?' or, in less charitable moments, 'You mean that guy actually has two women willing to sleep with him?!' It's led to the two of us discussing the boundary between truth and deceit, infidelity, human insecurities - in real life, literature, and in the movies. The producers of the show like to pretend they're providing the people who call them with a form of social service - albeit one that fills their coffers like no 'real' social service ever could - 'exercise your right to be informed', they state with ponderous solemnity after exhorting viewers who suspect their partners of infidelity to call them. They actually provide the 'investigative' services free of cost, which only proves just how lucrative this business is - not to mention the fact that all the investigators on board are licensed, and the equipment they use, even for a prurient television show such as this, is more expensive and up-to-date than any that even our cops possess.
Two things stand out - first, how very similar people across the world are. Regardless of who you might be, or what you might be working as, or where you might be living, the key to happiness for most people has to do with their jobs or the absence of it, money or the lack or it, and relationships, and whether or not one person's cheating on the other. Second, it's amazing just how much time people spend in deception, in concocting tissues of lies, in clandestine behaviour, when the simple truth could make life so much easier for everyone. So many of these relationships that 'Cheaters' highlights are clearly on their last legs, but the person who wants out only comes out with it after having been followed around by mysterious men with cameras for weeks and having had their escapades broadcast before the whole world - not to mention the final humiliation of being confronted by their furious lovers armed with a camera crew, who proceed to berate them loudly in public spaces.
The makers of the show take a morally upright stance, often letting viewers know at the end just how beneficial this exercise has been for the people concerned. I daresay most viewers feel the same way - we always like the thought of wrongdoers being punished, unless, of course, it's our sins in the spotlight - in which case it takes only a split second for them to be whitewashed into socially acceptable behaviour. Apart from getting a glimpse into the murky depths of people's lives, viewers are also provided with an opportunity to play judges in the security provided by familiar surroundings, far away from cameras, unsympathetic strangers or hostile environments - and castigate strangers while being secure in the knowledge that it's not you who's been dumb enough to get caught doing something you shouldn't, or pathetic enough to be cheated on. And I think that accounts, in large measure, for reality television's phenomenal popularity.