“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” on TLC.
“Our big dilemma going into the end of the season is whether we may actually be pushing the envelope too far,” says the protagonist of “The King of Pain,” one of 2012’s most enjoyable novels for anyone who is a fan of reality television or simply likes monitoring the continuing train wreck that its more tawdry regions have become.
The character, Rick Salter, is talking about a wildly successful reality competition show he created in which contestants undergo various kinds of torture: they’re deprived of food one week, branded the next week, and so on. The show becomes a national phenomenon, finding the perverse side of the public taste, until things spin out of control.
Rick, incidentally, is undergoing torture of his own. He spends most of the novel trapped under a gigantic entertainment system in his house, which has toppled, pinning him beneath. We learn about “The King of Pain” as he looks back on the show’s epic rise and fall while waiting for someone to come along and free him from his metaphorically apt prison.
The novel is by Seth Kaufman, a Brooklyn writer whose résumé includes time at TVGuide.com and as a reporter for Page Six at The New York Post. And it seems particularly appropriate for 2012, a year in which the reality genre offered some stunning fare.
There were shows and one-shot specials whose mere titles were jolting: “I Was Impaled,” on Discovery Fit & Health; “Wives With Knives,” on Investigation Discovery; “My Giant Face Tumor,” on TLC. There were series that insulted whole groups of people, like “American Gypsies,” on the National Geographic Channel, and “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” on TLC; and “Breaking Amish,” on TLC, and “Amish Mafia,” on Discovery. There was — again on TLC, easily the leader in this type of sludge — “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”
Which should lead us all to do some-soul searching here at year’s end. Was 2012 a nadir for reality TV? Can the offerings possibly get any worse in 2013? Is “The King of Pain” (Sukuma Books), amusing as it is, the last satire that will ever be written about reality television because the genre has become too ludicrous to parody?
Mr. Kaufman, at least, isn’t worried that reality-TV reality is going to make reality-TV fiction unwritable.
“At first glance you might think so, but parody and satire are proving quite flexible these days,” he said in an e-mail interview. “ ‘The Daily Show’ and The Onion make us laugh when we should be furious or heartbroken. So I think reality shows — from the petty, freak-show vérité soap-docs like ‘Real Housewives’ to weirdo-docs of ‘Extreme Couponing’ and ‘I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant’ to ‘enter-pain-ment’ shows like ‘Survivor’ and ‘Killer Karaoke’ — will continue to provide a lot to laugh and wince at.”
And talk about.
“As long as channels can market these shows so they remain in the national conversation at work, on Facebook and in the news, reality TV will continue to be fertile subject matter for anyone interested in modern culture,” Mr. Kaufman said. “And that’s because the questions posed by reality TV are endless. Are we what we watch? Are these shows abusive? Does that make us voyeurs for watching them? Or is it O.K. because, hey, the contestants are exhibitionists?”
And, he noted, “There are many world events that make you think it is reality that is un-parody-able, not just reality TV.”
A scan of the most appalling reality shows of the past year may be cause for dismay, but people who work in the genre note another side to the spectrum.
“I think there’s a lot of redeeming reality television out there,” said Jason Carbone, founder of the production company Good Clean Fun and executive producer of shows like the Style Network’s “Tia & Tamera,” a likable and relatively circumspect show about the adult lives of twins who were stars of the 1990s comedy “Sister, Sister.” “I think that it’s probably not as loud as some of the shows.”
Mr. Carbone suggested that, like every type of television, reality TV has cycles, with current trends perhaps influenced by viewers’ need to forget the economy. “They like to feel better about their own lives,” he said, “and reality TV offers up a lot of people whose lives are far worse than our own.”
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