Surreal Moments I: Reality Sick TV

“He was celebrated all throughout Christendom as an enemy of the Turks.”

Lost Worlds: the Real Dracula


“I can’t believe we were talking about boobs.”

Denise Richards, It’s Complicated


Warning: The first part of this post contains graphic descriptions of torture and the second part is about Denise Richards.  Pick your poison.



            Usually I think I have an adequate grip on the bundle of consensual conventions called, for convenience’s sake, reality.  Periodically, though, surreality sideswipes me, throwing me completely off course, sometimes for hours.

            The other Monday I was watching the Denise Richards reality (sic) show—wait, I can explain.  I’m not offering a justification, because some things are not justifiable; merely an explanation.

            I started out watching a show on the History Channel about Vlad Dracula’s castles.  It was pretty cool.  They were using cgi and some old historical drawings and plans to re-create images of the various towns and castles Vlad Dracula used as they would have looked in the middle 1400s.  Only, it’s about Vlad Dracula, Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Count Dracula,  and you can’t really talk about him without addressing some of the horrible things he did.  So they detoured away from Vlad’s real estate to talk about how he took vengeance on the boyars who assassinated his father.  When one of your nicknames is Vlad the Impaler, it’s difficult to avoid a discussion about impalement, and this show didn’t want to avoid it.  They tackled with gusto.  A blond-haired English historian lady, wearing a thick sweater (I think it was winter in Rumania) held  up a pole about four inches in diameter, one end sharpened to a point so that it looked like a huge pencil.  “Often the enemy would be impaled through the navel or the heart,” she said, “and death came relatively quickly.”  Relatively; that’s good.  “However, if they really didn’t like you. . .” She flipped the pole.  “They took this rounded end and they greased it.”  Her voice took on that tone of low-key matter-of-fact English glee.  “Then they inserted it into the rectum.  The bottom,” she added, remembering that her ignorant American audience probably wouldn’t know what rectum meant.  Her eyes widened slightly.  “As they pole made its way through the body, you see, it could take literally days to die.”

            Clearly in those days it paid to invest in a relative who was a good shot with a long bow.

            Hoo-kay.  I read fantasy and horror, and I’m not squeamish, but if they were this excited about impaling people I could just imagine what fun they were going to have with that time Vlad drove iron spikes into the skulls of the Turkish emissaries because they would not remove their turbans in his presence.  I channel-surfed away from Vlad, thinking I needed a mental palate-cleanser.  Click.  The Weather Channel had the big map and was talking about Kansas.  Click; Comedy Central was in commercial.  Click again; and I was on the E! Network and Denise Richards and three of her friends were walking on a white sand beach somewhere in the tropics.  Denise accosted a nondescript-looking guy with a camera with a huge lens, like maybe 700mm.  It had to be digital with some sort of stabilizer, which my friend Mary describes accurately as the “no-shaky-thingee.”  Denise had deduced that he was a paparazzo (or, as she called it, “a paparazzi.”)  It turns out that she and her friends are on a man-and-child-free vacation on Maui, and they “just want to be free to have fun;” just the four of them and the camera crew.

            There was a jump-cut and next we saw Denise and her dark-haired friend getting ready for a paddle-surf lesson.  Cut to Denise sitting somewhere, speaking directly to the camera.  “I knew they would take the worst possible picture of me, I had gained weight and didn’t like how I looked in my bikini, and I just didn’t want to look stupid.”

            Well forgive me, but Denise Richards worked in a movie called Starship Troopers, which means she must have faced and conquered that particular fear many years ago.

            A few shots of Denise paddle-surfing and then we were in their hotel room while the four women ate candies or mac-nuts or something from a crystal bowl in the center of the table.  It was their last free day on Maui.  They wanted to cut loose, do something really wild.  I’m sure there dozens of wild things you can do on Maui.  You can hike, hang-glide, snorkel or ski.  You can probably go culturally wild and visit a hula-helau, or a gourd carver, or find a music jam.  You can go bar-hopping, Mai-Tai wild.  Faced with this plethora of choices, the four made the decision most mature, sophisticated women would.  They decided they wanted to find a slightly more private beach and sunbathe topless.

            Just them, and the camera crew.

            They discussed their breasts, pre-and-post childbirth, and one of the friends was reluctant but finally agreed she would take her top off if all the others would too. These four never once broke the fourth wall.  No one said, “I’m okay being half-naked in front of you guys but I’m embarrassed about the camera crew.”

            This is what I don’t get.  Are the viewers supposed to forget that there’s a camera crew there?  Since the crew follows you around all day, I suppose the participants really do partially forget, until they decide they want to go somewhere.  If you drive somewhere, and the crew’s in another car, and you start to get in an argument with your friend, do you both say, “Stop!  We’ve got to wait for the crew?”

            At this point I was ready to do errands anyway, but these questions kept revolving at the back of my mind as I hauled boxes down to the storage unit.

            I understand not loving the paparazzi.  As a celebrity, you have no control, no “final cut” they way you do as the producer of your own reality (sic) show. I don’t understand pretending a need for privacy.  “I’m sooo tired of being pursued by the paparazzi!  I feel besieged!  I just want to go someplace where I can be alone with my friends. . .and the camera crew.”

            I predict that soon, “camera crew” will replace “elephant” in a well known therapeutic figure of speech, as in this example:  “Stephanie, you say you’re angry with Alan because he hogs the remote, but isn’t the camera crew in the room really the fact that he had an affair?”

            So what have I learned from this experience?  The first lesson is more like a reminder; British historians, Vlad the Impaler, definitely the better choice.  And what about these unscripted shows who follow some used-to-be-famous person around all day?  I came to the conclusion that I can’t judge Denise Richards as harshly as I want to, because the show is a complete construct.  Even if the people who turn these hours of banality into half an hour of solid waste wanted to show Denise volunteering at her children’s school, helping with a food drive or serving meals at the local homeless shelter (assuming she does those things) they probably couldn’t, because of all the privacy waivers they would need to get.  I doubt the other demi-celebrities and genuine celebrities whose kids go to school with hers would ever agree.  So she probably isn’t as shallow and pathetic as. . .well, not as shallow as. . .well . . . She is probably a woman with small children who has figured out a way to make some money without leaving home or her kids.

            What else did I learn? This is America, the land of opportunity.  Any boy or girl can grow up to have a camera crew of their very own.

            My final lesson: If you’re going to watch this kind of thing, go for the contests; American Idol, Project Runway, Next Food Network Star; shows where people have a talent and actually create something.  Otherwise, iron spikes through the skull are still the better choice.


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