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Coming Back for More

Monica Lewinsky reclaims her fame with "Mr. Personality" and Stephen Glass returns for his sixteenth minute.

7:50 AM, May 14, 2003 • By MATT LABASH
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IN MY CORNER of the world, there are two kinds of people I generally abhor: those who pretend they don't watch television, and those who do watch television, but pretend they don't watch reality television. To the former, I usually display awe--you can also live without Jimmy Reed albums, red meat, or sex, I marvel, but why would you want to? But it is the latter for whom I really have contempt.

Reality TV, the critical line goes, is counterfeit entertainment. As sad-sack sleuths like the Washington Post's television critic Tom Shales assert--there is nothing real about it. And thank God for that. Actual reality would mean training a camera on Tom Shales as he sits on his sofa eating Pringles, while writing really nasty one-liners about bad sitcoms on his laptop. Give me "Temptation Island 2" any day.

Equally specious is the argument that the glut of reality programming is keeping more respectable original programming off the air. Is our world really the poorer for not having a seventh "Law and Order" spin-off? Will our children be culturally malnourished if television executives can't counter-program with the next "According to Jim"? To the contrary, reality TV is actually faster, smarter television. It forces the viewer to become invested in characters, and turns television-watching from a slack-jawed, passive pursuit, into an interactive, and in some cases, cardiovascular one (as you retrieve food and drink items thrown at the screen in disgust, while witnessing the endless parade of human debris). In reality TV, a moral order is evident. Good is usually rewarded, evil punished. Reality TV is something like life, only it has more attractive characters, is better lit, and comes with lots of commercials so that you can take a bathroom break or get a snack without worrying about missing anything. Its cast members, whether eating grub worms or raining epithets on their own mothers, prove regularly that they will do anything, abase themselves in any way, just to be on television. In this last respect, reality TV most strongly impersonates reality.

Take the new reality show, "Mr. Personality," airing, as so many of these shows do, on Fox. "Mr. Personality" is venal, tawdry, and hosted by Monica Lewinsky--admittedly, a redundancy. We'll get to Monica in a minute, but first, a series synopsis. The plot revolves around a Malibu mansion packed with bachelors, all vying to win the heart of 26-year old Atlanta native, Hayley Arp--a blandly attractive Andie MacDowell knock-off who is in some kind of a hurry to pick-up a fiancée on a national television show, as you might be too, if your last name was "Arp." At first, the show sounds like a discount version of "The Bachelorette," but there's a catch. All of the men-folk wear different colored latex masks, meaning that poor Hayley will have to get beyond their superficial looks, and probe deeper, to their superficial personalities.

"Mr. Personality" generally adheres to reality TV dating-show conventions. Alcohol consumption often ends in a trip to the hot tub. The contestants always ooooh and ahhh over the sight of a limo, as if they've never been to prom. Minority contestants are obligatorily brought along to the second round, then swiftly, and racistly, eliminated. But I do not tune into this show to witness the gang-bang subtext or the idiot dialogue (my favorite exchange: Bachelor Brian, the blue-masked attorney, encounters a hula girl during a luau they're having in the living room, then tries to sneak her upstairs under Hayley's radar. The girl asks him: "Have you ever tried to go up stairs in a grass skirt?" "I can't even imagine," commiserates Brian).

Instead, I tune in because I enjoy watching shows with the long knives sharpened. Though I'm not a big fan of kicking people when they're down, kicking people on their way up after they've been down makes me feel alive. And there are few people I could think of that have spent more time coming up after going down, than Monica Lewinsky.

It has become a cultural cliché of course to pronounce our era as marking the End of Shame. But it is hardly a new notion. All the way back in the fourth century B.C., Diogenes The Cynic stated that "Blushing is the color of virtue." But then Diogenes The Cynic was so . . . cynical. He never met Monica, or saw reality TV. For every media invention requires a reinvention, and while some would slink away after becoming famous as a presidential ashtray, Monica's transformation to television hostess and all-purpose generic celebrity is nearly complete.