For a long time now the mass media has revolved around celebrities – so it’s only logical that the media should want to create their own breed of these money-making monsters. Big Brother contestants, it seems now, were an early prototype. Their design fault was their lifespan which became briefer with each series.
What the media needed was a batch of celebrities whose lives the public could continually follow, not just like a soap opera, but as an actual soap opera. These people wouldn’t be tainted by desperation, as reality television show contestants traditionally were, but could instead be something to aspire to. Most importantly though, they would be accessible to viewers and to the press, as they were working for, and part of, the media itself.
Made in Chelsea is the latest progeny in this branch of celebrity culture, with the seemingly foolproof ‘reality soap opera’ formula applied to wealthy Londoners. Unlike the characters in this show though, its ancestors weren’t always noble – but they have always been rich.
The legacy of the most successful family of these shows can be traced back to MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, in the early Noughties. Laguna Beach produced The Hills and from The Hills out came the city, each programme adorned with its very own cyclical plotlines and repetitive dialogue, like a sort of Russian doll of banality. Then the family tree branched out into Britain with The Only Way is Essex and now Made in Chelsea. Their less glamorous cousins, Jersey Shore, and spawn of Jersey Shore, Geordie Shore, helped make the genre ubiquitous.
The attraction of these shows is partly due to the idea that the audience is getting an insight into someone’s real life. But obviously people’s lives do not resemble soap operas, so in order to bend and twist them to fit the form they need to be fictionalised. This results in people acting out their lives, which is why the format is best suited to LA (or somewhere where dialogue from a badly-acted episode of Hollyoaks can pass as real conversation, ie Essex). Unfortunately, it seems that Sloane Square isn’t the natural home of wannabe thespians, instead it is the home of very, very bad acting.
The bad acting makes it harder to know how to react to what’s on screen. In the third episode of Made in Chelsea, Ollie breaks up with girlfriend Gabriella (which doesn’t come as much of a surprise since he has had to restrain himself from shuddering and gagging in her presence for two previous episodes), but does so in such staged, melodramatic manner that I found myself laughing out loud at a woman crying hysterically about her failed relationship. Which then made me feel kind of bad. But then I thought, no, I have every right to be laughing at this woman’s tears. Isn’t that what they’re there for?
Part of the fun of the reality drama is judging the people who are paraded before us, with the gratification that it is real people we are judging, and the consolation that it is not really real people that we are judging. By passing judgement, it becomes clear that these shows hinge upon a strange mixture of aspiration and derision- the viewer can both aspire to aspire to be like the stars of the show, while taking some comfort from the fact that they are not them.
Most of the ‘personalities’ though, defy description, because one of the necessary qualities of the reality soap is that the main characters must all be incredibly bland. The problem with Made in Chelsea is unfortunately that they are too boring, which is no small achievement – dullness being a gene in the reality soap family line that is always inherited. But this is where Made in Chelsea doesn’t ring true. Shamefully, I thought that perhaps all people in California were completely humourless and that maybe people in Essex really did only talk about plastic surgery. But I do know at least that being completely personality-free isn’t just the ‘way of life’ in London. And I’m sure these people do have personalities, but in order for the show to function, everything even slightly complex must be forgone for the pointless, boring, simple storylines to flourish.
As these shows breed and multiply, soon we will be able to tune into what’s happening in any region of Britain. But we should be careful to remember that this is not a representative of life on screen, because the truth is stranger, not to mention more interesting, than fiction. And as these programmes are consigned to the latter category, we can at least take solace in that.
The best of the rest…
The City: Whitney Port aka nicest girl alive, meets meanest girl alive, Olivia Palermo while working in the fashion industry. In season 2, whole episode is centred around Japanese people commenting on the smallness of Palermo’s face. The City is cancelled.
The Only Way is Essex: The guys and gals of Essex are rounded up to debate pressing issues of the day such as who is the best club promoter in Essex and is it good to get a boob job. Unexpectedly charming.
The Hills: Lauren from Laguna Beach moves to LA to ‘study’ fashion. She makes a lot of friends. They all happen to be actors.