Thursday, November 3, 2011


If you live long enough you come to find out that when things get really out of hand, the only thing that can get them back on track is one watershed event. You know, like Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries getting divorced after 72 days of marriage, even though they fashioned their union as the American version of the royal wedding. Listen, it matters. You want to know why? Because “reality" television is so far off track from what it could have been that something had to shake it back into true reality.

Ask yourself this and see what you come up with: Why do we even know there is such a thing as a Kim Kardashian? What has this person contributed to our culture, our social welfare, our society, our future? Yes, yes, I now, there’s always been a Kim Kardashian. In the 1950s it was called Zsa Zsa (left). In the early 2000s it was called Paris Hilton. It is a concept, as much as it is a single human being. There’s nothing particularly real about it, but it plays itself out as an American story of privilege, wealth, glamour and creature comfort. It’s usually a story that happens on the West coast, and it usually has some sort of hyper-sexual component. It’s captivating, if just for its moment in time.

But back in the 1990s, along came reality TV. That amped up the uber-wealthy California sun princess syndrome to the enth degree. Reality TV relies on two common elements: Extremes and humiliation. Think about it: Every reality TV show that hits the bigtime features extreme personalities and situations, and usually ends up in someone being roundly humiliated. But like anything else extreme in life, there are plateaus. So, for example, in the 1960s surfing might have been considered an extreme sport. Fast forward a few years later and extreme sports are activities more like sky surfing, in which the participants skydives, surfs on a board attached to his feet before he opens the chute. It’s just that whenever somebody gets to a mountaintop in life, we’re looking for them to find a bigger mountaintop.

Such is the case with reality television. Watching somebody on “Survivor” eat worms in a jungle doesn’t capture much of an audience share anymore. Likewise, watching our modern day Zsa Zsas go through one man after another and rake in more and more money for doing nothing doesn’t compel us the way it might have in the mid-20th century. So, comes Kim Kardashian, who realizes the value of televised extremes, and who finds herself a Minnesota boy who was the big (6’9” tall, 235 lbs) man on campus in Minnetonka, MN (population a whopping 51,000). Realizing that reality TV shows about people who do not much in life have limited shelf lives, Kim marries her NBA big boy in a lavish ceremony that costs somewhere between $10 and 20 million, depending on who’s counting. Then, still considering her looming expiration date as a TV star, she divorces him in a media-lavish fashion that garners headlines globally. Kim’s extreme act garners a huge audience, and the reportedly “blindsided” basketballer groom is publicly humiliated. Wah-lah. Reality gold.

Until Kim and her similarly unaccomplished sisters hit TV bigtime, she was generally known for three things: dating good looking athletes, making money, and a sex tape she made with moderately successful singer Ray-J. That tape was “leaked” somehow, which led to a lawsuit in which Kim reportedly walked off with $5 million. Like I said, the girl knows how to cash in. But it was really her reality show that made her a figure on the world stage, which she remains today. In fact, just hours after she filed for divorce she jetted off to Australia to promote her line of handbags. Reached for comment there by Australian media, Kim said simply, “I married for love.”

Look, we can criticize Ms. K and her seemingly endless array of siblings as much as we please, but the truth is that we made her what she is. We needed a Zsa Zsa for our times and she filled the bill. We thought for a while that Paris Hilton could be our Zsa Zsa, but she just wasn’t quite savvy enough to stretch her 15 minutes into something bigger. Kim somehow knows the critical importance of perfect hair and makeup even when dashing through the L.A. airport in the throes of post-divorce despair. Kim knows the value of having her step daddy, former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner (left), photographed by TMZ leaving her home after a visit to console her. She knows the importance of letting her momager, Kris Jenner, do the media interview circuit and saying just the right things like, “Who am I to judge Kim?” But I must remind you again – we made the Kardashians. Just like we made Anna Nicole Smith, and Snooki, and Lindsay Lohan, and all the others who maybe would have been better off in the long term if we had paid a little less attention to them.

Consider our American priorities: On the same day that Occupy Oakland citizens are hurling beer bottles at cops and cops are tossing tear gas cannisters back at them, we’re asking if Kim is going to return her wedding gifts. Just weeks after Gadaffi is killed following a bloody uprising and revolt in Libya, we’re asking if Kim is going to give the 20.5 carat ring back. Right in the heat of the GOP foodfight for the presidential nomination, we’re more interested in whether Kris Humphries is going to get his share of the profits from the highly televised wedding to Kim.

I would suggest that the less real reality TV became, and the more its fully contrived plotlines unfolded, the more we bought into it. When something truly real happens in reality tv – such as one of the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” husbands hanging himself – we move on from it pretty quickly. But when something fully produced, such as the entire Kardashian family comes along, we’re all up in it. The real issue is what that says about us, the television audience. The Kardashians are said to have grossed $65 million last year from their handbags and Hollywood hijinks. God bless ‘em, huh? They did that by artfully manipulating us into believing something about them was authentic. Most of us did not earn a fraction of what they made last year, so I ask you: What’s wrong with this picture?

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