Upon reflection it was silly of me to have avoided nonfiction before now. One of the first things they teach you (or at least one of the first things I was taught) in Intro to Cultural Anthropology is the role the ethnographic film plays in shaping people's interpretation of a society. It is exceptionally easy to use strategic edits and combinations of camera angles, jump cuts and voice-over narration to craft an implicit narrative within a documentary to convey a certain message or encourage a specific reading. This is of course inevitable and unavoidable: A documentary is not a silent witness and record of an event, it's a particular interpretation of a series of events that comes about through the interaction of a number of positionalities including, but not limited to, those of the film crew. Nonfiction can no more represent reality than fiction can: The only reason it has that reputation is because it comes out of the cinematic and photographic intellectual tradition which has always had pretenses of realism about it. A documentary is just as much a creative work as a story is. Documentaries are also especially interesting in the context of a Western society, with all its troubling associations with exoticism, imperialism, patriarchy and corporatism. Which brings me to the thing that's been gnawing at me for the past week or so.
As I write this the special tenth anniversary season of MythBusters is currently airing on The Discovery Channel. I've been watching the show for pretty much that entire span of time, and in my opinion few TV shows have undergone the sort of comprehensive and frequently troubling transformation it has, at least shows that are ostensibly nonfiction. My feelings on MythBusters are complicated and not strictly relevant to what I want to talk about here so I won't go into a ton of detail about them. For our purposes right now the most striking thing about MythBusters is that it began life as a kind of unstable hybrid of documentary and reality show structures whose primary appeal was that it took an intriguingly workmanlike group of builders and put them in an environment they were not at all qualified to deal with, that is, being responsible for large-scale science experiments. The whole point of the show as conceived was to watch a team of VFX experts with a diverse background and set of skills and experiences and watch the unique and unorthodox approach they take to working with the scientific method. That changed about four seasons in however, when MythBusters exploded in popularity and, as a result of the dearth of comparable shows, quickly became seen as the torch-bearer for science edutainment children's television, despite that being not at all what the show was supposed to be.
When this happened, the show quickly began to reorient and reconceptualise itself: Where formerly the show's signature had been its almost cinéma vérité approach of sticking a camera in M5 and filming Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage hash out plans for a complex build and than watching them methodically put it together, the retooled show forgoes any attempt to document the team's thought process and methodology in favour of speedy montages, rapid-fire editing and lengthy, scripted pieces-to-camera. Furthermore, the hosts themselves became very obviously “Celebrity Presenters” with caricatured personas that, given MythBusters' new status as edutainment, are constructed out of programmatic children's television character archetypes: Tory Belleci is now “The Silly One”, Grant Imahara is “The Nerdy Asian One” and Kari Byron becomes “The Girl One” and, of course, “The Hot Sexy One” “For The Dads”, I suppose.
The key thing I want to emphasize here is that there's a point in the history of MythBusters where the hosts stop seeming like real people being filmed in the act of doing their job and start to feel like they're playing a role, and a very stereotypical one, in a complex meta-narrative. I'm usually the first one to champion performativity in television, but not so much in this case. The reason I embrace performativity is because it breaks artifice and prevents us from reading things as representationalist that really shouldn't be read that way. That's not what MythBusters is doing here, though: Far from breaking artifice, it's going out of its way to take something that was already designed to give viewers a look under the hood and constructing an artifice out of that. I'm uncomfortable when nonfiction shows do this because, even though they're rejecting any attempt to be representational, thus reinforcing the fact that documentaries are born of positionalities just like anything else, this has the added consequence of blurring the lines between the plays and turning real people into cartoon characters. It's one thing to do this to a fictional character, who is purely imaginary and by default more flat than a real person; It's quite another to reduce an actual living, breathing human to a series of verbal tics and personality quirks. When you do that, it crudely conveys their positionalities as artifice, which gets repeated through the act of broadcastXdissemination and written back into the text, an act which transforms their lived experiences into artifice as well.
All of this sort of reached a zenith for me last week when the new episode of MythBusters, which was a special crossover with the cast of Deadliest Catch focused on “Bering Sea Crab Fisherman myths”, was backed by a series of lengthy ad spots that defy any attempt at categorization or explanation. There was the Geico Gecko talking about how lucky he was to get a backstage tour of the MythBusters set and how fun it was to meet the team and the Deadliest Catch captains and, following that, a truly inexplicable pitch for Microsoft where Kari, Grant and Tory sit around in different rooms IMing each other in a clearly scripted and staged manner about their favourite MythBusters moments using Windows 8 on a Microsoft-branded tablet. This came in the wake of an event I witnessed while (reluctantly) catching the tail end of Restaurant Impossible (Food Network's knockoff me-too version of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares) where host Robert Irvine gets his client a deal with industrial caterer Sysco (complete of course with gratuitous shots of the Sysco logo on vans and boxes). On a commercial break for this very show, Food Network actually had the gall to run an ad for Sysco featuring Robert Irvine and name-checking Restaurant Impossible itself in which Irvine talks at length about how any restaurant needs a good food supplier and how Sysco is the only one he trusts for quality, service and freshness.
In my more cynical moments, I'll claim the TV ad spot is the US's only quintessential form of narrative storytelling. As I am in a particularly cynical and depressed mood at the moment, I'll go ahead and claim that. I understand this-The US is a corporatocracy: Capitalism, and a certain kind of large-scale capitalism, is deeply ingrained in US society at a basic level and irreducible from it. That's why this blog exists. I also get product placement, especially in a show like this which is already fundamentally about capitalist fantasies and has to fund things like design budgets. But what we have here is the logic of both Restaurant Impossible and the Sysco commercial being fused and boiled down to reductio ad absurdum levels. It's as if the texts themselves have been downsized: The whole point of this is to get people to watch our show and patronise our catering service, so let's just cut out the middleman and make everything about forcibly coercing consumers to buy our shit. In days past while it was always clear what both commercials and commercial television were meant to do, at least they tended to strive for something a little bit more ambitious and less blatant than this.
In the MythBusters example this is even more distressing given that show's problematic associations with artifice: Here Discovery is not just trying to get us to watch the show or use a certain food service, it's overtly selling a cult of personality built around Kari, Grant and Tory, who are now little more than mascots pitching not only their own show (while that selfsame show is still physically airing), but Microsoft, Geico, Deadliest Catch and themselves all at once. MythBusters is a near-textbook example of the way Western society has fused populism, cinematic voyeurism and commodity fetishism into a twisted monster where we pay to ogle people's bodies and emotions. Through its systematic caricaturing of the people who work on its show, and now this extra layer of crass cross-promotion, Discovery has distorted the real, lived experiences of three people, turned them into fetish objects in every definition of the term and put them up on the market.
As I was watching this train wreck of late-stage capitalism slowly unfold before me, I was reminded of a piece I'd read earlier in the week by Phil Sandifer. In his analysis of the Doctor Who episode “The Unquiet Dead”, Phil made the claim that in a world where extensive behind-the-scenes documentation of the production of television shows exist, especially things like Doctor Who Confidential (which amounts to a reality show about the making of Doctor Who) we have to consider such documentation part of the actual text of the work itself. Which leads me, frankly, to come to a rather dark conclusion: Is it possible, using this reasoning, that we need to consider product placement, and indeed the very commercial nature of commercial television, text as well? This isn't even artifice as text, it's artifice-as-artifice-as-text. It's recursive artifice: Debord's Society of the Spectacle not only writ large, but jacked up on steroids and mutated into a daikaiju. Artifice isn't just replacing everyday life anymore, artifice is replacing the artifice of everyday life and selling that artifice back to us as part of a never-ending cycle of self-destructive consumption and submission. If there's a better sign in our discourse true social entropy has arrived and the collapse of Western civilization is not just an eschatological fantasy but something we seriously need to take into practical consideration and plan for, I can't think of it. Granted I'm a depressed, bitter, unfeeling anarcha-feminist who's prone to saying things like that, but even I couldn't have dreamed of finding evidence this good at backing up my hunches and theories nor, if I'm honest, would I have wished to.
Throughout this blog I try to stay positive about the benefits of Soda Pop Art despite the conflicts of interest of which it is comprised. I genuinely do think there is some worth and value to be gleaned out of it, if only to learn a little bit more about late-stage capitalism in the Western world; that dangerous, unsustainable thing we all take for granted as “The Way Things Are” and “The Way Things Should Be”. But I'm at almost a total loss here: This is so crass, so bald-faced and so blatant about demanding money from its audience in exchange for nothing but more demands for money I can't tease anything out of this situation other than to lament how absolutely pathetic it is.
As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I was made aware that the 2012-2013 US network TV season has seen an abnormally high number of cancellations, with at one point more than 18 shows getting axed within 48 hours. It's been increasingly my belief that television is a dying medium, and with what I've just witnessed over the past week it may well be within its actual death throws. To survive, our Soda Pop Art may well need to change what it is: It will need to transcend its origins and transition into the hands of those to whom it means the most, the people who its resonated with, not the corporatist media producers. For if there was ever a sign the stewardship of our cultural heritage or the well being of the people who share it was not in the interests of those who own it, this week was it.