First of all, let me apologize for not being around this past week. A bizarre apartment malfunction sent me and my family running to the hotel we’ve been living in for the past six days, with only our dog and the shirts on our backs. All this, with very little sleep and the pressure of delivering the first draft of my screenwriting assignment today. It’s been an adventure, and the thing that’s kept me sane through it all is reality television.
Really, Stephen? Reality television?
I’m not talking about your parent’s reality television, like The Real World or Big Brother, where the point is to voyeuristically observe the train wrecks of troubled lives colliding.
I’m talking about a new generation of family-friendly phenoms that teach more about human emotion and the sanctity of life than the world of literature herself. Yeah, I know, big statement. But I’m talking about inspiration here, not the deep, dark ruminating of Tolstoy, Hemmingway or Emily Dickenson. These are shows that reveal the human spirit in action, the American work ethic working, and the indisputable value of family and friends.
Description: “The twists, turns — and ties — are many for the staff at New Balloon Art. Each episode of this series follows Addi, Katie and Brian as they meet with a client and then begin creating a large-scale balloon installation for a special event or occasion. An average of 15,000 balloons are needed to complete the intricate projects, and the team usually has no more than 72 hours to get the job done.”
This charming show is my favorite. It proves that you really can do whatever you want in life. Do you remember your parents’ reaction when you told them you were going to be a novelist? Can you imagine if you’d told them you were going to be a balloon artist instead? Well, that’s what these guys do, and it’s as much an art as anything you’ve ever seen. I am astounded by the amount of creativity involved. I never knew how many different shapes and sizes and styles and colors defined the universe of balloons. These guys have to build their projects within a 72-hour window or else the balloons will shrivel and wilt (I know the feeling). If they can imagine it, they can do it. And this is the message I want to convey to my kids. This is why The Unpoppables scores at the top of my list.
The Cake Boss
Description: “Buddy Valastro’s family-owned business, Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, N.J., is booming, and it’s bound to get even busier after viewers get an inside look at how Buddy and his staff, including his mom, four sisters and three brothers-in-law, produce thousands of wedding cakes, specialty cakes (as in Britney Spears’ circus-theme 27th birthday cake) and pastries every week.”
Did I ever think I’d be glued to a reality TV show about a bakery? Never in a thousand years. So, why is this show so damn compelling? It’s Buddy. He’s an incredible hero. His story is the American Dream, realized from the boot-straps on up. The great message of this show is that integrity, loyalty, hard-work and commitment to family prove to be the ingredients needed to live a happy life. Buddy is a tough-guy Italian at first glance, but reveals himself to be such a loving romantic that I feel like a slug when compared to him, and any guy who watches the show with his wife is going to be compared to him. Interestingly, this is another show that proves art is a component of every vocation. I’m enthralled by the way science and aesthetics combine to create such functional beauty.
The Next Great Baker
Description: Join Buddy Valastro as he puts 10 talented pastry chefs through the wringer to earn the title of “Next Great Baker.” At stake in the competition: a $50,000 cash prize and the chance to work side-by-side with Buddy at Carlo’s Bakery.”
It was this show that introduced me to Buddy Valastro. He comes off as the boss-from-hell in this show, as he puts a group of talented, young bakers to the test. I was blown away by how much suspense can be squeezed out of baking cakes. All the dramatic beats of Greek tragedy exist here.
Pit Bulls and Parolees
Description: “Follow the turbulent drama and bittersweet moments of Tia Torres, her family and her crew of ex-convicts as they come together to rescue and rehabilitate abused and abandoned pit bulls.”
What’s not to like in that log-line? What marketing genius thought to combine Pit Bulls and parolees? If I banged my head against a wall for a thousand years I would not have come up with that combination. Reality wins again. This is a show about second chances. Everyone deserves one. These ex-cons learn to see themselves in the abandoned and abused dogs they manage, experiencing the kind of rehabilitation that could never exist in prison. And the fact that a tough, no-nonsense woman runs the place, keeping everyone’s attention focused on the plight of the animals, says more for Women’s Lib than a hundred pamphlets distributed in the parking lot of the Miss America Pageant.
This show also provides another great message for my children – there is good in all of us. If you fuck up, you can learn from it, you can make things right. Another common message in the above three shows – failure is part of the process. It’s the first ten steps of success.
Outrageous Kid Parties
Description: “Whether it’s a birthday party, a graduation, or any milestone celebration, each week Outrageous Kid Parties documents parents as they go beyond their means to give their child a huge eye popping, jaw dropping fete. With high expectations, they force other family members, friends and party planners to go to extreme measures to ensure that their fabulous party goes down in history as an event never to be forgotten.”
Okay, this is my guilty pleasure. This is the train wreck we watch from the sidelines. The best thing I can say about this show is that it serves as a cautionary tale for the handful of disturbed housewives who want to live their unrealized dreams through their children by spending $30,000 on a six year-old’s birthday party. And the women are perfectly matched with clueless husbands who enable them and always seem surprised when they arrive home to find a thousand people in their front yard holding tickets for a ride in the elephant parade. Then there’s the poor siblings of the Chosen Child who are told through a million un-spoken cues that they are not the favorite child, that they are undeserving of the $30,000 party, that the only thing they’re good for is getting on the bus to serve the favored one. These siblings might as well study balloon art and prepare for the worst.
19 Kids and Counting
Description: “The Duggars aren’t your average family. In fact, they’re over 5 times the size of an average family. And while raising 19 kids can be a challenge, for the Duggars, it comes with more than its share of rewards.”
The best thing about this show is that it directly follows Outrageous Kid Parties and thus provides an alternative to slitting our wrists. The show reminds us that all families are not dysfunctional. It is all about family and love and respect. Like The Cake Boss, the message is clear – you work hard, you’re there for your friends and family, you treat others as you want to be treated, and the goodness of life will be yours.
It’s interesting to note that I didn’t choose any of these reality shows. There were, in fact, forced upon me. I watched them because my kids wanted me to, and then I got hooked. What’s cool is that my kids saw their value first. They showed me the way. And I’m there for them, letting them know that their opinion counts. Reminds me of the special moments my father and I shared, watching episodes of the original Star Trek or Night Gallery together. It was our time to hang out, to be friends.
In addition to the reality shows, my kids have aged enough to appreciate the wry humor, sarcasm and sexual innuendo that permeates some of my favorite shows – The Office, Saturday Night Live (especially classic episodes), and Whose Line is it Anyway? This is a great relief to me, since just a few months ago it was Zack and Cody and Hannah Montana. Please, gag me with a spoon. I’m glad they’re growing up in a family without dysfunction. Oh, wait, is that the Girls Next Door they’re watching? I better go join them. (It’s called “adult supervision,” folks.)