Watching The World Go By

Never watched "Survivor." never will. what's the point? I've eaten bugs inadvertently myself, dozing in the hammock by the pond on a muggy summer evening. And anyone who wants to watch two petty rival factions go at one another can just wander between the purchasing and accounting departments of any company. Add up the physical challenges and the head games, and the whole thing sounds like nothing more than gym class meets sophomore mixer, no scarier than high school. (Although in the last analysis, nothing is scarier than high school.) I don't scare easily. I've lived through a kitchen renovation in an old house with uneven floorboards, and Donald Trump is building a skyscraper at the end of my block. Here on Temptation Island, where multimillionaire divorce lawyers roam free, survivors are those who pass the co-op board.

People named Kimmi and Colby and Amber (who chooses the participants, the writers for "One Life to Live"?) balancing on rafts, living on cow brains, turning brown in the outback? This is a stunt, not survival. Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds doing a TV movie and making fun of Eddie Fisher, Debbie still with that tight-lipped good-girl look--that's surviving. Bill Clinton taking an overdose of stupid pills, making an endless string of what we moms call "bad choices," then being lionized on the streets of Harlem after he decides to seek salvation and office space in an all-black neighborhood--that's surviving.

Yet how quickly the voyeurism of sofa slugs has become not only a national obsession but an expected staple of the weekly program schedule. Only three decades ago America was shocked and amazed by the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., who permitted a documentary crew to plaster their imperfect lives all over public television in a series called "An American Family." Today the fractured marriages of ordinary folk are severed in the seedy real-life setting of "Divorce Court," and the people who bring you "Trauma: Life in the E.R." find themselves blurring the genital area of a patient while the camera comes in tight on his severed leg.

A very wise trial attorney, knowing of my unslakable appetite for episodes of "Law and Order" (particularly during the classic Chris Noth years), once remarked that a televised trial is as much like the real thing as a wedding is like a marriage. All the boring bits are excised, leaving only the high drama. And that's the same relationship between reality and reality TV. The broadcast version covers only the peaks and valleys, the breakups and the big events. The magic moment of birth without the tedium of toilet training. The white dress and the cutaway, not the socks on the bedroom floor. MTV's "The Real World" features more nasty arguments and aberrant hookups in a few weeks than most of us experience in a lifetime.

Conventional wisdom is that TV is the purview of those with nothing better to do. But this boom in the vicarious is instead the hallmark of a people with not enough time on their hands, people who have a to-do list instead of a life, people for whom the download can never be quick enough. An entire nation living at warp speed has no time for tedium. What could be easier than cutting out the middleman of our own daily existence and instead watching the high points of life on tape? All the passion, none of the pain or perspiration. When Bob Vila builds a deck, it gets built in only an episode, and the wood never warps.

Perhaps "Survivor" satisfies a stunted yen for adventure, or maybe its tribes are just stand-ins for the Machiavellian manuevering of virtually every workplace, the intrigue without the bad coffee. It doesn't seem like particularly real reality television, although it's become the standard-bearer of the form. "A Baby Story," on The Learning Channel, in which you get to see the precise moment when a woman says to her husband, "I hate you, I want the epidural," is reality TV. Or "Cops," in which law-abiding Americans learn that suspects will never, ever quietly put their hands behind their backs for the cuffs (and that most police officers are way out of shape). Or even "The Operation," which is a completely no-frills look at the miracles of medicine. Guess what? Mitral-valve-reconstruction surgery is as boring as watching paint dry.

Which leads us to the most terrifying reality show on TV, more terrifying than watching Judge Judy yell at a grandmother who let her dog off the leash, more terrifying than seeing two girls with bad bleach jobs fight over the sexual favors of a round-shouldered guy with acne and a mullet cut on "Ricki Lake," more terrifying than the salad-to-dessert C-Span broadcast of Katherine Harris giving a lunch speech in front of a portrait of Pat Nixon. "Trading Spaces" lets you watch as neighbors swap homes and--with the help of some annoying decorators and a hunky carpenter who's always around (all right, it's only partly real)-- redo a room in the house next door. The episode in which the cheerful married couple painted the bedroom of the single father black to give it a manly, sophisticated look is not for the easily frightened.

Once there were visions of television uniting people, making the rich understand the problems of the poor, the poor understand the problems of the rich. (See: "Dynasty.") A global community would develop around the cathode-ray tube. Instead it has come to this: bad bridesmaids' dresses, small-claims court and stitches in some kid's lip up close and personal. And a black bedroom with this poor guy standing in the doorway making that face people make when they've gotten novelty sweatshirts for Christmas, the face that says "It's awful" so much better than words alone can say. Reality television is the 21st-century equivalent of astronaut food: just point and click, and it's as though you're really alive. "I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts," Orson Welles once said. Pass the snacks and settle back. And if your kids want to talk or your mother calls, just say, "Shhhh--they're about to vote someone off the island." Because isn't that what life is really all about?