- The Best or the Worst of Our Nature:Reality TV and the Desire for Limitless Change
Aaron Sorkin has a dream. In his award-winning series The West Wing, the dream he wrote about and set before our eyes each Wednesday night was that there could be ethics in politics, real people with a real sense of right and wrong who would battle it out against the cynical interests of the political elite, and who could, at great personal cost, change the world for the better. The same dream began to emerge in Sorkin's series for NBC, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which debuted in the fall of 2006 and was pulled after mid-season. There we were introduced to Sorkin's own world, the world of television executives, writer-producers, actors, and all the others who come together to put on a weekly comedy show à la Saturday Night Live. In Studio 60, the dream is of ethics in the television business, of real people with a real sense of right and wrong who battle it out against the cynical interests of the media and corporate elite, and who might, at great personal cost, change the world for the better.
One of Studio 60's principals is Jordan McDeere, the newly minted president of a television network who is determined to fight for better standards and unhampered expression in the face of an increasingly personal counterattack from conservative religious sponsors who feel that her programming is anti-Christian. Although the conflict is rather disingenuous-as Frank Rich has amply demonstrated in his weekly New York Times column, the news network that most represents the Christian Right politically, FOX, is at the same time one of the most [End Page 177] active peddlers of primetime smut1-the example of programming that Sorkin chooses to showcase the struggle is instructive.
In the show's fourth installment, originally aired on October 16, 2006, Jordan listens to a pitch for a new reality show from smarmy, hypersuccessful British producer Martin Sykes. The premise of the show, called Search and Destroy, is that fresh, young couples will be brought together in a mansion where their dedication to each other will be put to the test. Unlike previous shows such as Temptation Island, however, their faithfulness will not be tested by the sexual allures of seducers- and seductresses-for-hire; rather, it will be tested by the truth. Their pasts will be minutely investigated, with every last possible secret dredged up and brought to bear on the partner's devotion. The last couple standing gets a "lavish wedding, a house in South Beach, and a million dollars."2
From the chairman's perspective, the show is a sure-fire winner. For him it is not a question whether they will bid for it, but how much they pay and how soon it will be aired. Jordan, however, passes on the show, and she does so in the name of quality: the show, in her estimation, is "toxic," and "bad crack in a schoolyard"; "I swear to God," she tells the parent company's owner and CEO, "the better our shows are, the more money we're going to make."
It should probably not surprise us that when Sorkin looks for an example of bad television to vilify, he should turn to reality TV. After all, he is a writer-producer himself, one of the most legendary, and the clear model for the writer-producer within the show Studio 60, Matt Albie-an independently minded, brilliant satirist who left the show years before over limitations on his creative freedom. For writers like Sorkin, or the fictional Albie, the creative process is sacrosanct, and thus the unscripted inanities that constitute much of the dialogue on reality TV can only be anathema.
Nevertheless, the phrasing Jordan uses in defending her position is telling: when asked to elaborate on her judgment that the show is "disgusting," she elaborates, calling it "patently disgusting," because "it appeals to the worst of our nature and whatever network airs it will play a measurable role in subverting our culture." Referring to the show's hypothetical winners-the couple...