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COLUMN

Stranger Things Have Happened

Veena Thomas

So you come home from your long day at work, too exhausted to do much except curl up on the couch and switch on the TV. With your last ounce of strength, you flip through the channels. Wanting to hear some music, you turn on MTV. Silly you! What made you think that the “music television” channel would actually show music? All that’s on is Real World and Road Rules.

Frowning, you flip down to the non-cable channels, certain that you’ll find something interesting to watch. But what’s this? ABC airs Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? constantly. CBS alternates between Survivor and repeated footage of people brushing their teeth -- wait, that’s Big Brother. Even Fox has gotten into the trend, with When Animals Attack and When Good Pets Go Bad.

What’s a gal to do when she has a hankering for some good old-fashioned scripted television and some cute professional actors? Obviously, turning to the fantasy land of television for an escape from real life proves to be fruitless. What’s with all of these new “reality programs?” (And I haven’t even mentioned Dilbert.)

Perhaps it’s a backlash to the phoniness of most television shows of the 1980s. No one can say that The Cosby Show presents an accurate portrait of a family, with their always-happy endings and entirely too cute kids. People praised the programs in the 90s for being far more realistic than their predecessors. Shows like My So-Called Life were critically acclaimed for their portrayal of what it’s like to be a teenager. Dawson’s Creek finally proved that high-schoolers can deal with some real struggles, and can have an IQ of more than 70. But these shows still weren’t entirely realistic.

Regardless of how twisted and complicated your high school social scene was, it certainly couldn’t compare to Beverly Hills, 90210. And how many of you actually had a vampire-slayer in your high school? Better yet, how about a vampire-slayer who was dating a really pale guy with pointy teeth?

It seems only logical that the next generation of television programs skips over the actors entirely and goes straight for the common man in their attempt at reality. These days the ubiquitous camcorder captures everything on film, as is revealed every time anything newsworthy happens and it’s captured by amateur paparazzi. People love to videotape everything and they love to watch videotapes of other people.

What else can explain the incredible success of Real World? Seven beautiful twenty-somethings “stop being polite -- and start getting real” in random hip cities across the world. So popular, this show spawned off Road Rules, which was a less-interesting variation on the same theme. After all, if you hated all of your castmates on Real World, your best course of action would be to retire to your own bedroom and pout. However, if you hated them on Road Rules, you could drive the trailer off a cliff. People had to be a bit more cautious.

Yet even these shows aren’t as realistic as they could be. Some carefully set up a scenario strictly for the benefit of all of the viewers at home. Just look at Real World: New Orleans. Julie, the sheltered Mormon from Wisconsin, is conveniently thrown in a house with Danny, who’s gay, and Melissa, the outspoken half-black, half-Filipino. Over the course of the show, Julie is exposed to things she’s never seen before at Brigham Young U. and learns all about real life. She cries over how she’s never really lived before and how protected she felt. What a wonderful learning experience this is for Julie! Let’s watch her grow up, right before our eyes!

Still, these pairings are rather tame compared to some of the ones producers could have come up with. What if these fictional characters were paired together on some of the reality shows?

Monica from Friends and Beavis from Beavis and Butthead, on Real World: She’s the cultured, civilized neat freak of Must-See TV. He’s, well, not, to put it mildly. Think these two will last? Or will Monica “accidentally” throw Beavis out with the trash?

Scully from The X-Files and Clark Kent from Lois and Clark on Big Brother: These two find themselves inexplicably attracted to each other. In a heated moment of passion, Scully confesses to Clark that she doesn’t believe in aliens. Poor Clark. But this is the least of his worries. With the ever-present cameras and nary a phone booth in sight, how can Clark Kent change into Superman? It’s hard to save the planet when you’re not allowed to leave the house.

ALF from ALF and Phoebe from Friends on Survivor: No one knows quite what to make out of the little furry guy who’s always making wisecracks. Is he some kind of joke? He worships Phoebe because she’s always singing about smelly cats. Phoebe, however, can’t quite deal with life on the island. At least she brought along her guitar as her one allowed personal item. But there’s not much to eat and she can’t take a shower. Her, eat rats to survive? Never. And why is the furry guy so happy? “There’s no food? Guess I’ll just be forced to eat cats!”

Daria from Daria and Quinn from Daria on Real World: Daria’s the bitter, cynical girl in combat boots who loves making fun of the trendy high-school social scene. Quinn is the trendy high school social scene. Can these two live together? Wait -- they’re sisters! They do live together! Guess this scenario’s been done before.

Dawson from Dawson’s Creek and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Road Rules: Dawson, always the budding filmmaker, decides that he’s not going to leave it up to the producers of MTV to create a documentary of this experience. He shoots his own footage of the trip. But, viewing the tapes, he’s a bit puzzled. Why doesn’t Angel show up on film?

Hey, more bizarre things have happened. The cast of Real World is currently making a show of themselves for local-access cable. So watching Real World is akin to watching a documentary of people making a documentary. With all of the realism around these days, MTV’s got to do something to be different. Perhaps they could stop with the reality shows and air music videos again; that’d be a welcome surprise. Or even a reality show of people watching music videos. Wait, that’s Total Request Live. To quote the Barenaked Ladies, “It’s all been done before.”