There is an axiom of physics that goes something like the act of observing affects that which is being observed. Never is that more true than with so-called Reality TV. Some people have wrung their hands about this being the death of scripted television, or how this is the yet another sign of the decline of modern civilization. All I know is two things: one, that the show got under my skin, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, and I wanted to figure out why. Two, that somewhere along the line, our culture became fundamentally broken, someone decided to air the results, and call it reality television.

We, as a people, are drawn to story. We all have them, we all relate to them, we want to see them told well. If there are characters, we want to get to know them. We want to identify with their situation. I think that this is part of the draw to television shows in general, and reality shows in particular. In this case, Paradise Hotel offered a fascinating portrayal of the human condition, giving us bug-eyed high school-ish drama queens (Toni); meditations on physical beauty (Zack, Andon); insights into dysfunctional relationships (Zack and Amy); the insecurities of the inner fat man trying to fit in among the “beautiful people” (Dave); and the resentment of the party/live for the moment types toward more the more reflective people (Alex vs. Charla). While there are many areas of possible discussion springing from this show (signifying first and foremost that I have spent entirely too much time watching it … for which I conveniently blame my wife), there is an ethical question that kept popping up that I want to explore: what are people willing to do to get what they want?

First there is the issue of the level of discourse. Okay, I’ll admit my bias: I’m a writer. I don’t necessarily expect everyone to break out into Shakespearean soliloquies or anything, but unscripted dialogue is painful to listen to. More painful, in fact, than the dialogue that naturally occurs between people in “real life” because in real life, we aren’t trying to play to the cameras. Not all of us can afford to have a bevy of personal writers who hand pages to us from the bushes so that we are always prepared for witty banter. I understand that. But too many confrontations on the show ended with in-your-face screaming sessions that I’m surprised anyone kept a straight face through. Apparently–mind you, I may have been the only one to miss this memo–there is an unspoken virtue to being a tough-talking, cool-with-attitude-to-spare sort of individual. The same attitude that breeds the “when I have no real point, I’ll simply get louder” brand of discussion. It was also seen as an act of bravery to stand around and let people spew their venom all over you rather than just leave, Dave being the usual resident punching bag. Let’s have a moment of silence for the death of civility. I know, I know, no one is expecting to follow Robert’s Rules of Order, nor does politeness play well on TV. But we end up with clips of Amy waving her arms around yelling “I’m not scared of you” to a seated, and barely paying attention, Keith. We get Toni strutting around saying “excuse me?” whenever she feels even the slightest bit disrespected. Both probably expecting women at home to be cheering “you go girl”. Please, don’t let me have to write the phrase “you go girl” again.

The second issues involves the ever present cameras. I am back to the on-going debate I often have with friends about reality television: are these idiots, I mean, actors, I mean, contestants playing to the cameras or are they legitimately forgetting that the cameras are there. The sad conclusion I am coming to is both. Obviously producers are in the ears of the people, hinting that if they want more camera time they have to do things worthy of it (hence the often forced drama as people blow up over the silliest of sleights. Or maybe, in our PC-indoctrinated world, people really are so thin-skinned sensitive these days). These, by the way, are the same producers that edit the pieces to then portray these over the top performers as villains (as if Beau can ever return to his friends in the “real” world and live down the slow motion image of him jumping up and down on a bed, in triumphant glee over the prospect of the demise of the Dave/Charla group).

And the cameras illustrate the number one sin committed in the hotel: gossiping. Back-biting. Slander. A sin we are rarely conscious of. I mean, let’s face it, if there really were cameras around us all the time, mostly hidden, and we knew, how long would it be before we forgot they were there? How many of us would get in trouble or would soon be confronted by friends, co-workers, or family in fits of pique, if they were allowed to view even your (and I say “your” because I never say anything about anyone. Ever.) most casual conversation about them? Ironic, considering that Christians–and upwards of 60% of the people in America would describe themselves as such–say they do believe in such “cameras”, they just call them God.

Don’t get me wrong, not all of what people called talking behind their backs could truly be called gossiping. After all, in a game of strategy, one has to discuss their rivals strengths and weaknesses as they analyze their next move. That’s not always what got shown. In an amusing twist (well, I’m sure as the producers sat around discussing it, the idea sounded amusing; it actually played out as quite ugly), contestants that had been kicked off were brought back to the island after having watched the show, which no one on the island could do. Let the action ensue. Not quite.

This leaves us with the Matrix-like dilemma: Do we even know what reality is? Originally, this was supposed to be a show about “hooking up or going home”. Somewhere along the line, the focus shifted so that the point became about surviving the game (exhibit A in my case that they made up the show as they went along). Exhibit B, there was no exit strategy. I mean, at the beginning it seemed that the show could go on in perpetuity, as new guests get voted on and old guests voted off. Then some exec probably whispered to some producer that reality shows had to come to some sort of end. Audiences had come to expect some sort of payoff, not a revolving cast of new people we were expected to get to know. Exhibit C, in case you wanted to know, is that only in the last few weeks of the show was there talk about there being a prize, and thus a point, to the game (a game they didn’t really know they were playing at the beginning).

Obviously this has all been orchestrated by producers and directors, who themselves–aware of our love for story–are ingenious story tellers. Hey, give the devils their due, even devils of our own making (and choosing). This show reminds us that we learned all of our social cues from high school. Remember that book we were supposed to read, Lord of the Flies, that we never quite got around to but faked that we did during the discussion part of our English lit class? The one where kids, sans adults, are left to come up with their own society? Take that and mix it with the timeless story of high school politics: the smart kids versus the beautiful kids; the nerds vs. the party crowd. Subtract anything approximating intelligence and wit, but add extra heaps of gossiping, back-biting, “drama”, conflict, the stoking of enemies, even creating these things when none might arise (especially t
hrough the aptly named, Pandora’s Box, the gimmick where people could “anonymous” asked questions to each other, designed mostly to insult and spread gossip). What does this say about us? We are entertained by the worst about ourselves. There is a reason that Zack can repeatedly comment on his physique, disparaging others in the same breath, thus elevating vacuous preening to an art form, and not himself be held into account for it.

Okay, I’ll admit it, I really just wanted to use the phrase “vacuous preening.”

It was the contestants themselves that made the observation that there are ways to keep, or at least not betray, relationships in the name of playing the game (a game, like most reality competitions, based on deceit). That was the nugget of worth in the show: when all is said and done, everything boils down to relationships: How you form them, how you sustain them even in times of duress and differing agendas, and what it takes to destroy them.

There is a good chance that the show will be back next year (after all, we just suffered through Temptation Island 3). Not that its ratings were especially high, but they did score well with the coveted 18-35 year old demographic. Will we watch? Will future contestants have learned their lesson? I doubt it. More people will line up to go, despite how obviously (at least in how the show was edited for consumption) no one seemed to be having fun by the end. No fun in “paradise.” And why? Not simply the free vacation, such as it was (by the way, who among us can afford to take up to three months off from work to cavort on an island?). But for the opportunity (since none is guaranteed) for money, fame, attention, and validation (through seeing themselves, and being seen, on television). To paraphrase the brain-trust that is Scott, “they let the game play them.” And we watched, playing ourselves.