While sitting in the reception area of the Dollhouse Dance School recently, contemplating my rather short-lived career as a wannabe pole-dancer, I got to do something I don’t get to do very often: I got to watch Hungarian TV. I first realised I had an obsession with TV when I sat through a marathon screening of back-to-back episodes of MASH on my first visit to New York. I preferred to hang out with Hawkeye and Pierce rather than drop by the Statute of Liberty or visit the Empire State. This obsession has been confirmed in the intervening years to the point that I’ve resolved not to have a TV set in my flat ever again – I’m smart enough to spot an addiction when I see one. I now contain my viewing to hotel rooms and once I’ve lost to the devils inside me and turned the TV on, I find it nigh on impossible to turn off. It doesn’t matter what rubbish I’m watching. One of the few English-language channels in Malta is called True Lives: it offers corny, badly acted TV renderings of true stories staring stars before they were stars. Excruciating to anyone else; a calm, soothing narcotic to me.
… the bland leading the bland
The late New York Times reporter, Murray Schumach, said it nicely: TV is the bland leading the bland. And there isn’t a better word than bland to describe the show Szexi vagy nem that was airing that evening on Viva TV. Some young hopefuls trotted their stuff in front of a panel of three judges tasked with deciding whether these kids were sexy or not. And they were kids: boy faces on gym-manufactured bodies; chins barely old enough to be shaved sat atop broad, muscle-bound shoulders; backs bowed, too young to have learned the importance of standing straight and facing the world head on. Their idea of a challenge was to volunteer to be rated on TV by a jury not quite of their peers. Did they know what they were doing, I wondered? The girls sashayed down the catwalk, yet to master the true nonchalance needed to wear high heels with grown-up assurance. Each had cultivated a look that epitomised their personal view of sexiness – a look they had to sell to stay in the game.
… chewing gum for the eyes
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright called TV ‘chewing gum for the eyes’. That brainless, mindless thing we do without doing, without knowing, without being fully present. We watch, detached, comatose, as hopes and dreams are shattered by so-called experts appointed to the jury to mete out their judgement. Those deemed not sexy enough were sent back to the audience. The finalists donned their swimsuits and lined up to parade their wares once again. As I sat, gobsmacked, watching this farce play itself out, I found myself wondering what it is about people who crave their 15 minutes of fame with such intensity that they are willing to humiliate themselves in public, before hundreds, or perhaps thousands, or even millions (depending on the TV channel) of viewers? Why has reality TV become such a hit? What is it that makes us take such visceral delight in the highs and lows of other people’s lives? Are we really that pathetic?
The girls, in swimsuits now, turned this way and that, showing the firmness of their youth to its best advantage. What little that was left of their innocence was veiled in make-up, a mask of sultriness that would have been funny had it not been so sad. Marks were added up and the winners chosen. First and second placed went through to the next round; the others sent home with the knowledge that they’d been judged not sexy or just not sexy enough. The door to therapy had already opened; later in life, when they would seek an answer as to why they’d always felt inadequate, their story would start here.
… more interesting than people
TV is more interesting than people. If it were not, continues Alan Corenk, we would have people standing in the corners of our rooms. But what makes it so interesting? I keep coming back to why. Why do those who take part in these shows crave celebrity status? And why do audiences the world over keep these TV programmes on the air? What can a show list Szexi vagy nem? possibly contribute to society? Perhaps I’m doing the show an injustice. Perhaps the interviews with those who lost out were peppered with insightful wisdom that displayed a maturity beyond their years and that the contestants were actually future leaders of this country. I’ll never know. The TV was on mute. I was just watching the pictures.
I wonder what that says about me?
First published in the Budapest Times 9 September 2011