I loathe reality shows. There, I’ve said it.
Sure, there are a few compelling reality shows, shows that require real skill (The Amazing Race, Project Runway) or have been complete guilty pleasures (America’s Next Top Model, Drag Race).
But for the most part, I avoid reality shows like the plague. Most of the non-competitive ones are all the things that soaps are always accused of being – shallow, melodramatic and all about sex and money. Many of the shows, be they competitions or just a glimpse of the “real world”, seem to exist to give the audience a vicarious way to enjoy other people’s embarrassment or sorrow. (Example: the first few weeks of American Idol.)
Since we often know little about the participants, we have no context to consider what they’ve accomplished. It’s no mystery why the conclusions of a season of these shows are so engaging – not simply because of the competition, but because we know enough about the participants to care what happens. Just as it takes us weeks, if not months or years, to care about new characters on soaps.
I’ve been unaffected by most reality shows and competitions. That is, until I saw Susan Boyle.
Susan, as you may know, is a contestant in Britian’s Got Talent (we’ve had the American version here on NBC).
On paper, Susan made an unlikely pop star. In her own words: she’s just shy of 48, and says that she’s never been kissed. (This implies a few other “nevers” as well.) She is a church volunteer, and cared for her ailing mother until her death a few years ago.
She now lives alone with her cat, and sings in the church choir. She’s a pleasant, presentable woman, but in an appearance-driven television world, she’s definitely no fashion model. This is a person for whom life’s opportunities have not been abundant.
So the judges, and the audience, see this mouse of a woman walk out onto the stage, and roll their eyes when she says she wants to be a pop star. They expected to laugh at her, or to witness this woman making an ass of herself.
And then? She opens her mouth and sings.
Listen to the lyrics, watch the audience – and the judges’ faces – and try not to be moved.
It was a beautiful moment, one that makes me bawl every time I see it. It’s moving in part because it’s so steeped in context. She’s got a lovely enough voice, to be sure. But context is always important in art; hearing the years of Susan’s life in her voice, and the triumph when she sings so FLAWLESSLY in the competition, is the thing that gets me.
One of my favorite underdogs recently got its eviction notice….so I love that in this case the underdog, at least for three and a half minutes, totally KICKS ASS.