Reality TV isn't really real. Maybe you've noticed. It's more like an enormous vetting process that demands, if not humiliation, then a deep and abiding display of humility before the eyes of God, America, and Simon Cowell.
If you can endure that, and game the rules a bit, too, you might be a star.
Ironically, those rules can have little to do with the task at hand. Judges for So You Think You Can Dance, for instance, have shown less interest in a contestant's dancing ability than in his or her willingness to mug and preen and be subjected to all manner of invasive interrogation: Show us your dirty laundry or pay the price.
This was brought into sharp relief in 2007 when Danny Tidwell, an elite dancer and former member of New York's American Ballet Theater, was ridiculed by judges for appearing to be, as he awaited their decision, "God's gift to the world." He flew in the face of television storytelling convention — arrogance is always a thin veil for deep-seated insecurity. If you don't show your true self — the self that is ostensibly, in Tidwell's case, a vulnerable little boy — you're not being true to yourself or to the rest of America.
And that, my friend, is bad TV.
Such is the power of television that it makes even elite dancers like Tidwell behave in ways inconceivable before his appearance on the show. And it's this power to manipulate people into pretending to be something they are not that fascinates Liesbeth Gritter.
Gritter is a founding member of Kassys, a Dutch theater company based in Amsterdam. She and partner Mette van der Sijs are making their American debut during Spoleto with the premiere of Good Cop Bad Cop.
They travel around the world creating abstract works for the stage, using live acting and lots of film to exploit the bizarro world between the authentic self and the invented self.
Their production, called Good Cop Bad Cop, was inspired by reality TV, which, while commonplace in the U.S., is still somewhat novel in the Netherlands. Gritter, being relatively new to its perverse appetite for humiliating otherwise proud individuals, believes TV encourages fear of being normal. Good Cop Bad Cop therefore examines what ordinary people do in extraordinary situations, like a reality TV show.
"People are asked all the time to comment in news stories about things they know nothing about," Gritter says. "But because they are on TV, they feel compelled to talk about something, even when what they are saying is actually saying nothing at all."
Good Cop Bad Cop is abstract and hard to visualize, but it goes something like this. There are actors on stage. Some impersonate cats and dogs. Others act like they are children. There's no story, but there is drama. Actors know they are expected (by someone; it's not clear who) to show jealousy, so they're jealous. Same with anger, arrogance, and compassion. They are prompted to state with certainty how they are feeling, even when their feelings are far from concrete, more like ambivalent and obtuse.
If Good Cop Bad Cop sounds absurd, that's because it is. Just like "reality."
"We see so many normal people talking about things they don't understand that it seems normal," Gritter says. "But it's amazing to see their talking being dramatized by music and visuals. It makes perfect sense, of course, because people naturally want to be more than what they are."
Let's put that in other words.
Reality TV exploits a basic tenet of being human: Human beings want to be important, so when we are asked for our opinion on important things, like war, crime, disease, and poverty, we behave exactly as expected — as if we really are important.
More precisely, this is a tenet of being an adult homo sapien. Children and animals don't display such behavior. They are more honest with themselves and more honest with others, Gritter says, who implicates herself as well.
"Instinctively, children and animals don't pretend like we do," she says. "They know when they are pretending even when learning how to conform."
Eventually, as we grow older, the pretending becomes normal.
"There's the problem," she says. "It's so easy to conform."
Don't believe her? Just ask Danny Tidwell.
It's not just easy to conform.
It's hard not to.