Politics & Policy

Reality Bites

Ain't nothing like the real thing.

I tried to watch The Real Gilligan’s Island, the new TBS reality series in which two Skippers, two Gilligans, etc. compete to see who can be rescued first, but gave up on the wretched enterprise after 15 minutes. And it’s not because I’m too highbrow for Gilligan’s Island either–far from it.

Shortly after Sept. 11, I began thinking that the wonderful thing about Gilligan’s Island–which has been dubbed into 30 languages and has never, not once, been off the air since its CBS premiere 40 years ago–is how perpetually enraging it must be to anti-Americans around the globe. When the Castaways put on a show, it’s always a festival of Dead White Males–a musical version of Hamlet, to the tune of Carmen.

And the characters! The Millionaire displays an unseemly Western uxoriousness toward to his one wife–insulting to societies where women are fourth-class citizens, after the children and the camels. Mary Ann, besides her fondness for short-shorts, is offensively spunky to anyone who thinks women belong in burkas.

Then there’s Gilligan, the essence of the naïve, childish American–as Americans are so often described, ad nauseum, abroad. But bumbling, unsophisticated Gilligan has a way of ruining the plans of every Soviet cosmonaut or banana-republic dictator who drops by the island.

“Representing the average citizen at his most ordinary,” literary critic Paul Cantor wrote in his 2001 book Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture In the Age of Globalization, “Gilligan presides over a kind of democratic utopia on the island and is repeatedly called upon to act as its savior.” What’s more, he always prevails.

But that’s fiction, which even in its schlocky pop culture form can expand to the larger-than-life dimensions of myth. The Real Gilligan’s Island, on the other hand, is a tedious, sorry business in which one of the Mary Anns gives a Millionaire a suggestive backrub, and a Skipper turns blue and has to be airlifted off the island for medical reasons. (He later returns, to the maudlin tears of his fellow contestants.) And that’s reality–or at least, the small, base, hot-tub-hopping world of reality TV.

Even when reality shows have at first a certain amount of charm–American Idol, The Simple Life, The Apprentice, for instance–they become unbearable fairly quickly, which doesn’t stop networks from putting on endless new versions. Not that they’re proud of it, of course.

“Reality shows are not the kind of thing that develops connectivity and emotional relationships with our viewers,” former WB entertainment president Jordan Levin said at a news conference, adding that “I don’t think the economics of reality programming, once you dig through the numbers, are all that advantageous.”

This doesn’t mean that Levin didn’t enjoy the quick (if unemotional) fix of High School Reunion’s boffo ratings, for instance, maybe just that he hated himself while doing so. In any case, the WB premiered a new version of the show this week.

Reality is the genre that everyone loves to hate. Dick Van Dyke poked his finger down his throat and made a gagging noise when reporters asked his opinion about it. Writer-producer Judd Apatow, bitter when his critically acclaimed but low-rated college comedy Undeclared was about to be cancelled by FOX a few years ago, sent an angry e-mail to fans when the producers of FOX’s The Chamber and ABC’s The Chair began fighting over who thought of which sadistic, gross-out game show first.

“So basically they’ve turned Clockwork Orange into a show,” Apatow complained. “The people who control TV are scared and desperate right now. The only thing worse than a crappy TV show which Paddy Chayevsky couldn’t have conceived in his worst nightmare is two megacorps fighting over who thought of the crappy show first.”

“That’s the television business, it’s not show business,” veteran manager and producer Bernie Brillstein shrugged about reality TV when I sat chatting with him after lunch one afternoon. Brillstein’s many TV hits include The Sopranos, Politically Incorrect, and Saturday Night Live. Still, he’s realistic about reality, even though he predicts dourly that one day some network is going to come with a reality show called simply Gross!

“I hate reality shows,” Brillstein told me. “It goes against everything I believe in. But you’ve got to fill 21 hours of programming so what are you gonna do? I don’t believe any of these network executives wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve gotta do Fear Factor.’ They’re intelligent, decent guys. But they have to come up with cheaper programming because there aren’t a lot of stars left in the business. Milton Berle’s show did 80 percent”–meaning that 80 percent of viewers watching TV at the time were watching Berle–”now if you get 17 percent of the audience you’re doing well.”

Brillstein, by the way, is a macher on a mission–to pass on the deal-making smarts he’s learned in his half-century in show business. An example: “Because I’m fat, people believe I’m somehow vulnerable and easy to handle in a negotiation,” he writes in his delightful new book The Little Stuff Matters Most: 50 Rules From 50 Years of Trying to Make a Living. “Ever try to negotiate with a fat guy? We can be mean: Marvin Davis, Harvey Weinstein, Hermann Goering. No one screws around with us for long.”

He shrugged when I asked him what makes a successful TV show. “Most hits are pretty much a mystery,” he said. “I didn’t know that The Sopranos was going to be a hit. I thought the Tea Leoni show would be a hit.”

Back to Gilligan’s Island: Maybe it’s worth remembering, in this year of the show’s 40th anniversary, that few hit series have been so originally reviled. Gilligan got almost uniformly terrible reviews, and CBS hated the show and rejected it three times. Only the ecstatic response from test audiences persuaded them to grudgingly change their minds.

For his part, Schwartz named the Castaways’ ship the S.S. Minnow as a jab at then FCC chairman Newton Minow, who’d famously characterized television as “a vast wasteland.” CBS chief William S. Paley was horrified–”I thought it was supposed to be a comedy!”–at Schwartz’s description of “Gilligan’s Island” as a social microcosm.

Schwartz’s response is a classic of let’s-save-the-pitch quick-thinking: “It’s a funny microcosm!”

The Real Gilligan’s Island, along with most reality TV, will quickly vanish from the pop-culture radar–unremembered and unlamented. The real Gilligan’s Island, on the other hand, remains a funny microcosm that will continue to make glad the hearts of rerun fans around the world.

Consider this: Some years ago, actress Dawn Wells visited one of the remotest islands in the already remote Solomon Islands; she was, in fact, the first non-native woman to set foot there. The chief’s wife stared at Wells in surprise when she came out of her hut. “Mary Ann?” she asked in amazement.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.


The Latest