Reviewing Reality

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KK.JPG“If you can’t say anything nice …”

That’s what our mothers always told us. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. It’s a pretty good rule … unless you’re an entertainment critic.

Critics like me are paid to be, well, critical. Not vitriolic; not flat-out mean. But when you come to Plugged In, you’re here for more than just our swear-word count for The Devil Inside: You might be curious about what we thought. And we owe it to you to tell the truth.

But even in the crotchety confines of Plugged In, we hear our mothers’ sage advice. We hear the old campfire song, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love …” in the back of our heads. And so, we try to temper our reviews when we can: Sure, we’ll be critical of, say, The Sitter. We can be all sorts of critical of Noah Griffith, Jonah Hill’s character in the film. But when it comes to talking about Jonah Hill himself? The snark-meter goes down to (hopefully) zero. Sure, we’ll talk about what a horrible character Noah is. But when it comes to talking about what sort of a person Jonah is? We don’t want to go there. Whatever his faults or virtues are, we know in the end he’s a lot like us: a person made in the image of God with his own set of flaws and foibles.

Why do I bring this up? Because I recently reviewed Kourtney & Kim Take New York (E!’s latest chronicle of the Kardashian clan), and it proved to be one of the most difficult reviews I’ve done in a long time.

See, here’s the thing with reality television: As a reviewer, I’m still called to review the content we see on screen. I still have to point out bad behavior on these shows—and boy, is there a lot of bad behavior on Kourtney & Kim.

But at the same time, these are real people we’re talking about: Not characters. There is no Barney Stinson here (from How I Met Your Mother), no lovable, rakish foil that we’re supposed to laugh at but not emulate. There is no Darth Vader, a character written to elicit boos and hisses. The folks we see on Kourtney & Kim are (ostensibly) not playing characters: They’re being themselves.

And yet, that’s not precisely true—and what makes the review more problematic. Even if what we see on screen does reflect at least part of who Kourtney and Kim and their entourage actually are, we see the smallest sliver of their entire character. If someone was to film me for a week and edit the footage down to a half-hour show, the edited footage could make me look like a saint. Or a jerk. Or an unhinged madman. Even when a reality show is put together with the honest-to-goodness intent of reflecting “reality” (a goal I’m not sure many reality shows share), it’ll always fall short. We can’t get to know someone via television. We just can’t.

And it’s not just we critics who are judging them. Everyone who watches is called to render verdict: Not just on Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, but on Teen Moms and the characters on Jersey Shore and dozens of other shows. The people—the characters—are searching for celebrity. But in their quest they’re also becoming pop-culture sacrifices, set upon the altar of public opinions. We’re encouraged to ridicule and laugh at them, to lambaste them for their attitudes and habits and lifestyles and personalities and upbringings. We convict them weekly. For the privilege, we pay them well—and when you consider the sort of character assassination that can take place on these shows, we should.

“If you can’t say something nice …” the adage goes.

So what do we do with Kim Kardashian’s jewel-encrusted laptop and middle school-style feuds? Or (then) hubby Kris Humphry’s penchant for partying when the wife’s away? We know they do these things, but these moments don’t encompass who they are, really. They can’t.

So how, then, do you review a person? How do you critique someone who you don’t and can’t know?

In the end, I wrote the review much like I would any other: I framed the folks on screen as characters—characters that may or may not resemble who the people behind them truly are. And as such, I think I can say that I’d rather not see any of these character Kardashians anytime soon. They represent a brand of television that’s neither good nor edifying nor (in my opinion) particularly entertaining.

And I kinda hope that the real Karshashians move away from television, too. No one deserves to have their life defined by a reality show. We’re all too good, too bad and too interesting for that.