Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Letter from California-September 27, 2004

I have a confession to make. I really don’t care what your living room looks like. Not even a little. Same goes for the backyard. If you like it, bully for you. If you’re not wild about it and would like the help of experts to turn it into the home of your dreams, well, I still just don’t care.

And it’s not just because I’m busy the day you need me to come over and help with the weeding and trimming. It turns out that I don’t have a burning interest in many of the things you do inside your home. If you’ve got shirts with ring around the collar, I’m not getting involved. If you’re thinking about replacing that old teakwood deck with a redwood terrace, that’s between you, your conscience and the Almighty. And maybe a contractor. Definitely get a contractor. You’re completely hopeless with a hammer, and, by the way, Home Improvement wasn’t really a home improvement show, so you can scratch everything you thought you learned from there.

Why mention all this? It seems pretty obvious that I wouldn’t care about the caulk you’re going to put around the base of your tub this weekend. It seems even more obvious that I wouldn’t be interested in what’s in your closet, what you put on your hair, or whether your nose has always been the shape it is now. Nevertheless, I mention it because the grooming habits and household chores of others are suddenly the subject of half the shows on television.

I need to tell you that this isn’t just another snooty rant against reality television. You can get those anywhere. Just this week, I read a short piece by Seth Godin, massively overrated business writer, in which he said that reality shows are the new dot coms. He recounted how people poured into the Internet biz only to launch lame-brained companies like bakery.com, promising to deliver your morning donut and cup of coffee right to your home or office by UPS or overnight mail (for a $12.50 surcharge). Then there was iBrick, where you could go online and browse a wide range of building bricks from brown to dark red and everything in between. Then, they mailed them to you one at a time, packed in Styrofoam peanuts, by UPS or overnight mail (for a $12.50 surcharge). There’s a company that imports Hello, Kitty merchandise in their building now.

Ok, he’s right. These are dumb ideas that came late to the game. They should have done it Godin’s way and gotten these half-baked, unproven ideas to market much sooner. That way, by the time people got wise, the founders would be sitting on a beach somewhere, sipping a festive beverage of their choice. Or in Godin’s case, sipping a festive beverage and selling business books and marketing strategies to the people in charge of iBrick and bakery.com.

In truth, reality shows can be great. From my youth watching Marlon Perkins hosting Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, I’ve always felt that TV shows with a connection to some real-life drama had an electric thrill running through them that Golden Girls or Greatest American Hero just couldn’t match. Hey, the mongoose could easily lose to the cobra, and we’d be here to see the whole thing. We know for sure that nothing’s going to shut its jaws on Bea Arthur’s neck and fill her with fatal poison by the end of the episode. We might wish it, but just wishing it doesn’t make it so.

I read another column this week in the L.A. Times written by Howard Leff. He feels that shows like “What Not to Wear” should be replaced by a more extreme concept like “What Not to Eat,” in which “a registered dietician…literally slaps the leftover pizza right out of your hand…” He also thinks an pet makeover show might be a hit. Something like “Pimp My Poodle.”

Good ideas, but since I don’t care about your car, home or personal hygiene, why would I care about whether your fluffy dog now has an onboard satellite navigation system and a built-in Playstation? Let’s go back to our mongoose-versus-cobra scenario. We’re rooting for the mongoose, but we know the cobra might vote the mongoose off the island with a fang full of venom. Somebody’s going to walk, scurry or slither away with immunity and the other is going to have the host put out his torch for good. Danger and conflict. That’s the recipe. Shakespeare knew it. Marlon Perkins knew it, and Mark Burnett, producer of Survivor and The Apprentice knows it. Not all producers of reality TV seem to, and that must be why Extreme Laundry Challenge just never took off.

So if you’ve got an idea for a reality show, remember this: just because it’s “real” doesn’t mean I’m interested in other people’s housework. I’m barely interested enough in my own to get it done. Sometimes not even that.

But if you’re thinking of a show where the Golden Girls fight deadly cobras once a week for a chance at a million dollars, you might just be on to something.

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