Noel and I are dedicated reality show connoisseurs -- and, truth be told, gourmands. We like a classy, well-staged reality competition, but there's also room on our TiVo for the guiltier pleasures.
This season we started watching Fox's So You Think You Can Dance again, after abandoning it in its first season. And while one might think that it tends toward the cheesier side of the spectrum, I've been surprised at how much I appreciate what the show tries to do -- and what it actually accomplishes. Nigel Lythgoe, quadrillionaire producer of American Idol, is an old hoofer from way back. And what he's done here is basically create a show that celebrates a form of entertainment he personally loves. The whole enterprise has a distinctly personal, labor of love feel. And while it hits the traditional Idol marks -- America voting dancers off the island, half-crazed judges screeching catch phrases -- don't you have to also give it credit for persuading viewers to watch foxtrots and Viennese waltzes even without the presence of B-list celebrities? Ballroom and modern dancing (liberally mixed with poppier forms like hip hop, disco, and Broadway) executed by actual trained artists, even professionals ... when's the last time that counted as Nielsen-busting entertainment on American television?
As I watched dancers from the Alvin Ailey company and the Los Angeles ballet on the So You Think You Can Dance results shows recently, I wondered whether anyone has noticed that these shows have turned back the clock in an interesting way. Haute cuisine, haute couture, classical dance -- thanks to reality competitions, these elite worlds are getting some serious popular exposure on television. Back in the golden age of television, variety shows freely mixed high culture and low; opera stars and classical pianists shared Ed Sullivan's stage with plate spinners and ventriloquists. Sure, the representatives of rarefied art forms that deigned to come on television risked being called popularizers, sullying the purity of their artistry by association with the vaudeville world of the vast wasteland. And that's still true today for the respected chefs, designers, choreographers and the like who appear on reality competitions.
But the stigma seems to have passed a tipping point. The best chefs in the world regularly serve as judges on Top Chef, for example. They seem to have accepted that shows like these can educate viewers about fine dining, without lowering standards or being crippled by commercialism. One determining factor in this acceptance is the presence of respected colleagues in the shows production team (Tom Collichio, Michael Kors, Mia Michaels, etc.).
Even though reality competitions have now been around for more than a decade, they're still pooh-poohed by many as evidence for the irreversible decline of television. Their role in exposing viewers to areas of culture and expertise far removed from mass culture is less appreciated -- but perhaps it shouldn't be ignored.