• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

If It's on TV, It Must Be Unreal

We used to joke that “if it’s in print, it must be true.” But now we seem to think that our dominant medium, TV, makes things unreal. I don’t think that this is just a function of the “distrust of authority” wave that has swamped cultures around the world–notwithstanding the King of Thailand‘s pathetic outlawing of disrespectful videos on YouTube. I think the line between fact and fiction on TV has blurred weirdly in the direction of fiction–as it has in the related media of film and popular music, and celebrity in general.

I got thinking about this driving home this afternoon from the studios of Global TV. For those outside Canada, Global TV is one of our national networks–indeed, a network that jumped from its regionally modest name of “CanWest” to the ambitious “Global” in one fell swoop. Yes, a bit unusually megalomaniacal for a Canadian company, I agree.

I was there to tape a short segment for Canada’s finest Christian TV show, “Listen Up,” hosted by Lorna Dueck. (I sympathize with those who think that to call it “Canada’s finest Christian TV show” is to damn with faint praise. But Lorna is a fine journalist by any measure and this is a pretty good show–despite her occasional lapses in the selection of guests…!)

Anyhow, while I was getting made up, I found myself between one Global news anchor, Deborra Hope, and another, Kevin Newman. And while they looked a little unreal in their perfect makeup, hair, and clothes, they were nonetheless real people getting ready to go to work. They bantered with the make-up artist, they politely made conversation with the odd duck in the room (yes, the theological professor), they discussed a current event or two–just like people at your job.

And I came away thinking, “Why am I surprised at this experience?”

I got on an elevator in a Winnipeg hotel a few years ago and the only other occupant was Kiefer Sutherland. It was late, we were both tired, and we said hello just as if we were ordinary people–which, of course, I assuredly am, but then, so is he.

Backstage once at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, my wife and I got to meet Diana Krall through a mutual friend. She was courteous to us and posed for a photo, as the star she is. But before she did, she giggled with her family who were over from Nanaimo for the performance–just as every performer I’ve ever seen has done offstage of a high school musical or a church concert.

On the set of Fantastic Four, I was chatting with my one single heavyweight Hollywood friend, producer Ralph Winter, when a young woman went by, glad to take a little juice break as everyone else was. She was just like the rest of us, except she was in a blue jumpsuit with a big “4” on it and her name was Jessica Alba. As she passed, she did what any polite person does: smiled, nodded in greeting, ducked her head, and headed for the snack trailer.

There is something odd going on with the rash of magazines now that try to tell us that celebrities are just like us, except that they aren’t: everything they do seems to be remarkable, if not sensational, while precious little that I do, or you do, is–right? In fact, they seem not just larger than life, but other than life, as if they are just dramatis personae: “Paris,” “Jessica,” “Anna Nicole,” “Brad,” “Jay,” “Beyonce,” “Denzel,” “Oprah”–not real people, but mere characters whom we can enjoy observing and gossiping about. They are not actual human beings for whom we might, for instance, pray.

I remember how in the 1970s television undermined America’s confidence in its government as the news showed body bags and coffins coming back from Viet Nam. Now, however, I just can’t quite believe things are really as they are in Darfur or North Korea or Myanmar. Too many well-made movies and TV shows have rendered the whole troubled world a mirage. And after “lonelygirl17” and other YouTube frauds, we can’t trust that anymore, either. What is real has shrunk down to my little horizon of personal experience. If I haven’t been there and seen it, then it’s not real.

Israel used to be just “Bible Story Land” to me until I went there. Now it’s real–but Saudi Arabia isn’t. China is real (been there), but Japan is just a bizarre mental kaleidoscope of samurai countryside and neon Tokyo. France is real (mmmm), but Germany isn’t. And so on.

And it (whatever “it” is–or “he” or “she”) is especially not real if I have seen it on TV. Rather than bring the world to me, as the news shows promise to do, it has pushed the world away. What is happening internationally or even in another municipality is now as “real,” and no more, as the next DVD I pop in.

So I don’t pray much, or donate much, and I certainly don’t grieve much. In fact, I’m as likely to get teary over a well-produced TV drama or movie as I am about a World Vision program or a newscast clip. And then I push the button, the Bad Things go away, and I can get about my business.

And that would mean I’m insane, wouldn’t it? Literally failing to distinguish between reality and unreality?

These musings evidence that I’m no Marshall McLuhan or Neil Postman, and I promise to get back to subjects I actually know something about soon. But the emotion of mild surprise of meeting two “TV people” in the make-up room today itself surprised me. Why should I have expected anything otherwise? Rationally, I wouldn’t have. But there’s something irrational going on here, and I don’t like it….

Do you feel it, too?

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