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.
After her trying year as a national punchline, she has said, "I would do anything to have my anonymity back." And she has proven it. When not serving as a Jenny Craig pitchwoman or an Internet purse retailer ("Bags are my life" she has said) she has led a quiet existence, albeit one that requires her to regularly appear on national television for hosting/soul-baring opportunities. She turned up with comedian Tom Green in Canada, for a publicity-stunt fake engagement announcement on the roof of the Little Beaver restaurant. And she has earned her chatty-Cathy stripes, pinch hitting for Barbara Walters on "The View." She has sat for an Actors Studio-style interview on HBO's "Monica in Black and White," for which she netted $150,000--hardly too much compensation to serve up introspections such as, "I wish I had a makeup person every time I cried." And recently, she has even written an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the evils of subpoenaing parents to testify against their children. Or perhaps she had it ghost-written, since unlike her Starr report e-mails, it is not written in all caps with lots of exclamation points, and there are no indiscreet outbursts, such as "I had a good time at the spa (I did it with the nutrition guy)!!!!"
Now, Lewinsky, who once told Time magazine that when she flashed Clinton her thong, "It was very subtle," swears to Newsweek: "I really treasure my privacy. I'm trying to recognize that I'm a public person and draw the boundaries of what I'm allowed to keep private." High up on the list of things she is keeping under wraps is her sense of decorum, as she has become the host of a sleazy dating show. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your gag reflex, there's not nearly enough of Monica in "Mr. Personality." She's mainly relegated to garnish. She has gone from lead romantic actress, to the dumpy best friend. She is empathetic. She's the kind of gal who'd do your nails, who'd hold your hair back when you need to hug the porcelain after doing too many shots, who'd drive you to the mall, take you to lunch at the food court, who'd look you in the eye, and say, woman to woman, "Are you going to eat that spring roll?"
No wonder Hayley Arp said she's "More than a host, she was like my buddy . . . my confidant, the big sister I never had." On air, Monica is mostly confined to conducting traffic, uttering such memorable lines as: "Standing before you are the men that you didn't choose. They came looking for love, but ummm, it just wasn't meant to be," or "Well sweetie, are you excited?" But other times, she's a port in the storm. When Chris, the green-masked motivational speaker who is trying to brainwash Hayley with neurolinguistic programming techniques, moves in for a hug, Hayley says, "At this point, it's too good to be true, I'm really trying to find out if this is the real thing." Monica just smiles a sad smile, saying nothing. She's been there.
Other times, she plays Linda Tripp to Hayley's Monica. In one scene, after cameras had captured Pete, the orange-masked unemployed Asian guy, getting freaky with a hula girl in Hayley's absence, Monica takes her to a surreptitious monitoring room and plays the tape. "You've just got to see this," Lewinsky says gleefully. "We have something to show you that just might make your decision a little easier." As they view tape of Pete ogling a girl's jiggling backside, Monica says, "I wish you would've walked in right now. He would've been busted!" "How creepy is he?" Hayley asks, somewhat innocently. Monica's seen Bigger Creeps, saying with her eyes what she doesn't need to say with her pouty, concupiscent mouth.
One thing Monica evidences is a newfound respect for the Rule of Law. In one scene, blue-masked Brian--the guy who went upstairs with hula girl--is about to get axed at an elimination ceremony, but pulls his mask off prematurely, quitting before he's fired. He says his heart's not in this, and that although Hayley's beautiful, intelligent, and charming . . . "I'm sorry," interrupts Monica with the same fire in her eye that she gets when there's a sale at Fred Segal's, "I'm going to interrupt, there have been rules who have been set up," she says, stopping uppity Brian in his tracks, before he can go out and parlay this stunt into fake celebrityhood, possibly with the Blue Man Group.
After leaving the show, Brian, now back practicing law in St. Paul, Minnesota, told his hometown paper, "Monica Lewinsky is appalled? This is a [woman] who [performed oral sex] on the president of the United States, a married man, and she's appalled that a single guy hung out with a beautiful girl?" Poor Brian. He just doesn't get it. Monica now lives in the dimension where celebrity trumps propriety. Or maybe she's just doing her job, agreeing to host "Mr. Personality," as SNL's Tina Fey suggested, so that she could have a new answer to those who ask her, "What's the most degrading thing you've ever done?"
It could be worse, one supposes. For Lewinsky isn't even responsible for the most degrading reality-television fare this week. That honor goes to former New Republic writer, and serial fabricator, Stephen Glass, who had a back-from-the-dead interview on "60 Minutes." After he was driven from journalism in shame in 1998, I became one of his infrequent defenders at the cocktail parties and crochet circles populated by Washington's chattering asses. And not just because he used to write ripping good stories, which became less so, the more untrue they turned out to be. Whenever his name was uttered, usually in a spray of blood and invective, I'd go contrarian, saying: "Give Glass this much: He's done something nobody does these days who is driven from the stage in shame. He's stayed gone."
But nobody ever stays gone for long. Not when there's self-revealing to do. Not when a major publisher will pay you six figures for your thinly fictionalized version of your heavily fictionalized magazine writing career, in your new novel, "The Fabulist." And so there Glass was on "60 Minutes," flacking his new book, awkwardly transitioning from what he was (a squirrelly little guy) into what he's become (a whiny little girl). He did much better work as the former. For there was a time when sentences like, "Nothing would make me so happy as your liking me once more. But I don't expect that. Not now, not after all that's happened. I can only tell my story and hope for the best "--wouldn't appear dead in a Glass magazine piece. Then again, the latter wasn't true, and sometimes the fictionalized truth is more compelling than the true fiction. Or something like that. I'm confused.
But Glass isn't. He has a new clarity. Of colleagues he's duped, who'd befriended, edited, and even co-bylined with Glass, and whose careers he could've destroyed in his wake, Glass told Steve Kroft: "I didn't want to give an apology when I didn't yet understand why I had done what I had done wrong." And now, after five years, six-figures, and a second novel in the works, he understands! "This is the very beginning of a very, very long process of apologies. I didn't apologize to people because I was so ashamed."
He might be ashamed now, but he'll get over it. They all do. Between him and Lewinsky, they make quite a pair: The Snow-Job Artist and The Blow-Job Artist. It would make one heck of a good reality show.
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.