Articles Square Eyes Television

Real Drama – reality vs. fiction

Monday, September 02, 2002

Channels here and in the US are fighting to outdo themselves with variants of the reality TV idea. At first unknown people were made famous just by showing them on TV doing their jobs – Hotel, Airport, that one about the cruise ship.

Then it became much more entertaining to get the unknowns to earn their celebrity a little – Survivor, Big Brother, that one on the Scottish island.

We’ve also had the historical variant – The Trench, The 1940s House, and now The Ship, which purports to be about James Cook’s voyages, but is really Survivor at Sea meets Simon Schama.

Celebrity Big Brother upped the ante by revealing the nocturnal habits of people who were already (kind of) famous. Now, ITV is customarily a day late and a dollar short with its celebrity Outback adventure.

These shows have some basis in reality (albeit an alternative one at times), but instead of replacing real documentaries, they’ve moved into the territory of TV drama. (Although The Osbornes nicely bills itself as the world’s first reality sit-com.)

Many of the must-see shows in previous decades were fictional series or adaptations – Morse, Prime Suspect, Brideshead Revisited, Our Friends in the North, Pride and Prejudice.

Now instead of opera-loving curmudgeons we get C-list celebs in shorts or porcine girls with a shocking grasp of geography.

Unlike the reality shows, good drama is expensive and risky. It depends on a commitment to excellent writing, and to challenging the audience. And there’s precious little of it being produced in these islands.

Bachelors Walk was encouraging if over praised, Any Time Now (aka Bachelorettes’ Walk ) flat and derivative, and the current crop of police procedurals are just going through the motions.

Before you reach for the lazy complaint that American TV is no better, get down on your knees and thank God for the US cable network HBO.

Sex and the City, Oz, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are all produced by this subscription-based channel that only reaches a small minority of US homes.

Recently its shows have bossed the Emmy awards, and with ER on its last legs, only The West Wing has challenged HBO’s dominance. The broadcast networks there, as here, have run out of bravery and ideas.

Compelling drama is creative, wise and true in a way that reality shows ironically can never be. Unfortunately the conveyor belt of crap shows no signs of stopping – anyone for Temptation Island or Fear Factor? Didn’t think so.

The programme makers need to get real and start making stuff up.