Thus, before the audience, unfolds the drama in the play "Collected Stories," by contemporary American dramatist Donald Margulies. The audience sees a young fiction-writing student come under the tutelage of a renowned novelist, and watches as the teacher-pupil rapport turns into a personal friendship. In the course of that friendship, the teacher shares much of her early life experiences with her pupil. The teacher also teaches the pupil, get ideas for your fiction-writing from wherever you can. Well, thanks to her good teaching, the young woman gets a book of short stories published to critical acclaim. But if she wants to be taken seriously as a fiction writer, she's eventually going to have to write a novel. Trouble is, she's lived such a sheltered life, she's got nothing to write a novel about, except--yep, you guessed it--her teacher's life. The stories her teacher has told her in the course of their intimate conversations become the plot of the young author's novel. In the final scene the teacher, devastated and enraged as well as terminally ill, dismisses her former friend from her life and sits alone in her apartment, soon to die.
If the script and the performance are working right for you, you're going to feel sad at the end. You will have developed an identification with both characters in the course of the two hours, and you will experience the emotional impact of that final scene. In fact, you may well express how good it was by saying something like "I cried like a baby," or, if you didn't like it, you may express it by saying "It didn't move me." This, indeed, is what drama is all about, in the many forms in which it comes. Whether it's "Saving Private Ryan," "One Life to Live," "Law and Order," or "King Lear," as you meet the characters and get to know them, you expect to start to care about them, and then, when they find themselves in dangerous or troublesome situations, you experience emotions on their behalf.
What does it take for drama to move us? What is drama? From my point of view as an author of stage plays, drama is about interpersonal relationships. Drama shows characters with their need for love and intimacy, whether in the form of the romantic, platonic, fraternal, or filial variety. It's usual for a dramatic plot to center on one single relationship, with the main suspense being about where that relationship is going to end up. Following further in that vein, it is not at all uncommon for the threat to that relationship to arise from the fact that one or both parties has other needs that may conflict. In the example above, the young woman's devotion to the friendship gets eclipsed by her need to publish a novel.
There are, of course, numerous other scenarios to be found in relationship-centered drama. Another engaging type of situation occurs when a relationship changes under adverse external conditions, such as an oppressive power structure, with the tragedy lying in the fact that oppression sometimes helps characters learn constructive lessons about how to love, and then makes it too late to put those lessons to use. We see this with a troubled marriage amid the Salem witch trials in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," and with a gay-male liaison in a Nazi concentration camp in Martin Sherman's drama "Bent."
So, drama tends to focus on a personal relationship and the challenges of sustaining it. If it's carried through effectively, it evokes emotions in us as audience members. We worry about their welfare. We cry when things fall apart for them. We foam at the mouth at the villains who mean them harm. And, when they face weighty moral dilemmas, we feel proud of them if they make the more honorable choice, and disappointed if they sell out.
What does it take to create a drama which produces these effects? It takes a whole range of skills that playwrights are trained in and practice over time. Job one is concocting characters. Each individual character is expected to seem real and believable, and the combination of characters should be such as would naturally lead to some conflicts and dangers. Since the audience does not want to watch people agreeing on everything, a good dramatic writer won't give them characters who do. When plotting out the conflicts that will arise, the effective writer lets those conflicts flow naturally out of the characters as they've been presented. Moreover, the audience expects the stakes to be high. One doesn't write a two-hour play in which a husband and wife have lost their opera tickets and are looking everywhere for them; or at least, if one does, there will need to be more at stake than whether they find them. In playwriting workshop groups, playwrights frequently advise each other to "raise the stakes" in the situations they've created.
Relationships. Conflicts. Emotions. Stakes. These elements are found in drama and in audiences' response to it. Now, how does this apply to that troublesome new genre known euphemistically as "reality TV"?
Let's revisit the making and unmaking of a friendship between two women. In the summer of 2000, millions of American TV viewers saw that scenario played out, not in any Donald Margulies play, but on "Survivor," with the legendary Sue and Kelly. They had become friends in the course of being in the same tribe and, subsequently, the same alliance. Presently, Kelly made a strategic move in her choice of whom to vote out of the game, which caused Sue to feel betrayed. In the memorable finale episode, Sue announced to the world that, if she ever saw Kelly dying of thirst with vultures hovering over, she would not give her water.
The producers of "Survivor" could not possibly have been surprised, or disappointed, by the way that the Kelly-Sue saga played out. In fact, it is barely a stretch to say that the structure of the show was deliberately designed to induce such incidents. Both "Survivor" and "Big Brother" employ the same general model: the players live together as a mini-community, forming friendships, romances, and enmities. At regular intervals one member of that community gets voted out. The last one standing in the end receives a large cash prize, a million on "Survivor" and a half-million on "Big Brother." Thus, the players are competing for a cash prize and functioning as close companions at the same time. At least some of the contestants take the relationships that they form extremely seriously. Amid this bizarre set-up, each person must write his or her own rulebook, when it comes to what strategic moves are morally right when it comes to playing the elimination game. One can expect to hear the plaintive words "But I thought you were my friend" again and again in the course of a season.
They're companions--in some instances close friends or lovers--and they're high-stakes competitors, hence a key element of drama: conflicted roles in a relationship. What makes reality TV the ultimate drama for some people is the fact that the stakes are real. And yet, even the circumstances just described are not always enough to ensure drama. It should not be forgotten that, for the latter half of the first season of "Big Brother," the producers found themselves confronted with their worst nightmare: a houseful of nice people who liked each other. There was a change in producing personnel for the next go-round, and incoming producer Arnold Shapiro made certain that the house would have enough volatile personalities to last the full season. It should come as no surprise that this was the year in which a drunken young man put a knife up to a female housemate's throat during a make-out session. Perhaps this incident could not have been anticipated, but that particular young man--Justin was his name--had bragged in his audition video of how he had recently told a woman her face was ugly. Clearly, Shapiro wanted to see some mean-spirited behavior in that house, albeit strictly verbal. So, in addition to setting up conditions most likely to bring out the worst in people, at least some of these producers cast players who seem most likely to give them the desired amount of friction. By now it is a cliche that there will be some contestants whom viewers "love to hate."
To these can be added yet another factor unique to reality TV: the blurred distinction between reality and make-believe. Most of the relationships and the emotions are real, yet the atmosphere renders enough of the feel of non-reality that many of the usual inhibitions are gone. The most obnoxious players on "Big Brother" are probably able to feel that they're not evildoers, just playing them on TV. Ditto for the tempters on "Temptation Island": "I'm not a homewrecker, I just play one on TV!" This combination--the stakes of reality and the disinhibitions of fantasy--makes the set-up particularly dangerous. But that's apparently the idea: drama requires danger, something for the viewers to be worried about. It stands to reason, then, that reality TV is about setting up real psychological danger to produce the dramatic effect.
In the traditional kind of drama, that distinction between fact and fiction is clear. After a performance of "Bent," you can expect to see the actors who played the gay camp inmates at a bar a few blocks from the theatre, sitting side by side with the actor who played the Nazi guard, buying each other drinks and looking ahead to the next play they'll do together. Some "Temptation Island" fans were recently asked, via an internet message board, whether they would enjoy seeing their sons or daughters as temptresses on that show. The consensus was that no they wouldn't. Now, another question might have been put to the same people: how would you feel about seeing your daughter play Abigail Williams in "The Crucible"? She has an affair with a married man, then charges the man's wife with witchcraft, and ultimately is instrumental in getting the man himself hanged. Would you want your daughter playing such a role? I think most people would reply, "Silly question! It's acting, it's not real!" Therein lies a key difference between the way audiences perceive conventional drama and reality TV. And yet, as long as their own progeny aren't in the line-up, they will get themselves quite caught up in the drama of which couples will break up and which newly formed pairs will do the nasty on the island, just as if they were watching all this happen to purely fictitious people.
This is part of what makes reality TV a very dangerous concept. Another factor can be added in as well. There is a principle, understood well by marketers, that a product needs to get more intense and more novel in order to sustain and expand its market. Just as movies today require more action and blood and guts to attract large audiences than they did years ago, it may well be that reality shows in the future are going to require higher emotional stakes. The fact that the producers of "Big Brother" saw fit, in the fourth season, to deviate from the usual set-up of a houseful of strangers, and to reunite five ex-couples by complete surprise to live together and play the weekly banishment game, illustrates this point: the need for more varieties of situation to watch real people suffer anger and anguish. If the pattern continues,viewers can expect periodically to see nervous breakdowns and suicides result from these shows. Worse, such consequences could eventually be seen as little worse than knee injuries in football.
You can't have drama without stakes, you can't have stakes without danger, and you can't sustain reality TV without drama. Put that all together, and the mischief of the reality TV phenomenon becomes all the more apparent. And the worst is almost certainly yet to come.
Ben Alexander, also known on reality TV message boards as Infidel In The Temple, is the author of a play called "JOCELYN," a drama about a young woman contestant on a reality-based TV show. An earlier and less polished version of this article appears in "At Issue: Reality TV," published by Greenhaven Press, but please be advised that the version here in this website was revised by the author more recently and better represents the arguments he wishes to make. Ben is an extremely hostile critic of reality TV. He can be E-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.