Reality Still Bites

Four slouching, mugging 15-year-olds (one of whom has way too many of my genes), the ex, the ex’s parents and I went to Buca di Beppo to gorge on what the hostess called “peasant Italian.” It was my kid’s birthday, so of course his mother chose where we ate.

And naturally, I paid.

Anyway, Buca is this huge place packed to the rafters with the San Fernando Valley’s polyglot population, bizarre photos of circus performers and strange, hungry people from the turn of the last century, and ads in Italian for pizza and the like. You sit at these huge oaken tables, and they throw down large plates piled with unholy amounts of pasta and breaded eggplant. Plus giant glasses of Chianti for the adults and soda for the boys.

One of my youngster’s paisans, the one who wants to be a screenwriter and whose father used to work with Pat Boone, brought along a video camera. We hadn’t been seated two minutes before he exclaimed that this was a perfect setting for a reality show and started filming a very un-Roman-looking blonde waitress who was carrying two massive meatballs on a tray. In unison, the other boys chanted, “Vote her off! Vote her off!”

That was when I went berserk. Started waving my garlic bread around wildly, yelling about how NBC and Fox are ruining America. They all looked at me like I was nuts, except for the kid with the camera, who said, “Dude, that’s tight,” and started filming me instead of Blondie.

See, like every upstanding American, I keep waiting for reality TV to go away. But the damn thing is more resilient than Danny Bonaduce.

I rejoiced when the networks said they would show prudence and not flood the airwaves with nonscripted “entertainment” this season. But we’re barely a week into the unofficial start of fall, and already we’re running stories in this magazine about how Average Joe and Next Action Star (both NBC) are waiting to replace the fast fizzlers on this year’s network schedules. And we’ve reached another low with Spike TV’s The Joe Schmo Show, in which a guy thinks he’s on a reality show but isn’t.

Painfully, I must now officially place reality TV on my black list of horrible ideas that refuse to die—right below SUVs and right above in-bathroom advertising.

I have a media-buyer friend who watches reality shows with her 20-year-old daughter, who is apparently “glued” to the stuff. Girls, I can understand. But if teenage boys are now taking their cultural cues from reality shows, if these video infestations are that entrenched in our collective unconscious, we’re finished as a species, folks.

OK, sure, it’s not really reality. It’s evidently not all that unscripted, even. I know I’ve never been near anything remotely like Temptation Island (let alone any woman who may live on it). And I’ll be frank: There are a couple of reality shows I wouldn’t mind seeing: John Wren, Martin Sorrell, Maurice Lévy and David Bell on Survivor: Tikrit. Donny Deutsch on American Idol. Ed Meyer on For Love or Money 3.

But mostly I just want them to go away. I’d rather turn on Whoopi than one of these things.

I don’t blame the viewers. They’d watch paint dry if it was somehow humiliating for the paint. I blame the big national advertisers, the ones whose blessings no genre can live without. Once they got on board, they ensured that reality TV would be with us always, like a mole on the face of media.

Maybe Big Brother and Who Wants to Marry My Dad? aren’t as outrageous as, say, your average Howard Stern show. But they hardly reward honesty, loyalty and the setting of positive life priorities, do they?

We need a better definition of what is and what isn’t a proper environment in which to convey a commercial message. That’s hard enough to do in a football game, let alone a show in which the viewers are comatose from overindulging in schadenfreude.

On a more personal note, if anyone knows a good production company, give me a call. I got a 30-minute pilot here for a new show called American Buca that can’t miss.