Watching the turmoil in the Trump White House over the last week got me to thinking about MTV’s “The Real World.” A long time ago, at the beginning of this crazy century, I wrote a story for Rolling Stone when the show was going into its ninth season and the producers, Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, allowed a reporter in on the “secret” casting process for the first time.
As it turned out, the key to casting was to push the line far enough to find crazy and outrageous kids without hiring one who might actually kill anyone (him or herself included). The casting formula also demanded a diverse and yet stock pool of stereotypes to play off one another — the partier, the naïf, the jock, the devout Christian, the gay kid, the provocateur, etc. The truth was that these so-called different people were often capable of getting along just fine, especially since they basically wanted the same thing (their 15 minutes of fame).
But getting along isn’t very interesting. Bunim tellingly came from the world of soaps where falling into a coma, cheating, divorcing, lying and giving birth to an illegitimate child — preferably in the same half-hour — is the narrative bar. Ergo, the producers and their cameramen crafted a show where the kids stopped being polite and started getting…. I know what you want to say but the answer, Virginia, is not real. It’s savvy.
Why is this relevant now? Because Donald Trump is employing this same lowbrow entertainment instinct, casting for the same kind of drama. Take the most recent example: Anthony Scaramucci, the Snooki of White House officials (down to his bada-bing nickname “The Mooch”), picking fights in Long Guylandese with Reince Priebus, the straitlaced student body president from Wisconsin.
The Donald himself plays the alpha-male rich kid, gleefully tweet-dunking goody-two-shoes Alabaman Jeff Sessions in the proverbial hot tub. And if you loved to hate Puck, the nasty bike messenger from season three of “The Real World,” you’ll definitely enjoy hiss-booing alt-right messenger Steve Bannon.
It’s fun, isn’t it? “As the World Trumps” makes for even better (and in liberal bastions, more bonding) water-cooler chatter than “Game of Thrones.” Not everyone has the stomach for flaying and castration, but mean tweets between ’80s-throwback white guys can’t hurt you. They can just make your eyes glaze over with anger when it’s time to read the latest story about, say, actual policy.
And that’s the rub. What I really learned back in 2000 is that the only sin in reality TV — and increasingly in America — is being boring. If viewers get bored, they might turn you off. They might even pay attention to what else is going on, for example an attempt — bravely thwarted by the Democrats and Senators Collins, Murkowski and McCain — to take away health care from people whose lives may not be entertaining but are meaningful nonetheless.
We may feel like we’re a captive audience, but there’s something we can do: Turn off the Trump show — even when it’s so outrageous that it’s a guilty pleasure.
Trump isn’t an evil genius, even if he plays one on TV. He’s a man who doesn’t crack a book, who has no sense of history. But take it from this former reality show reporter, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing either.
Our president is a reality TV/wrestling impresario whose sleight-of-hand is outrageousness and infighting. He won’t go away so long as we are entertained, even negatively. But the future of America, a story with real drama and real stakes, cannot be forged by a cast of clowns who stop being polite only to grab a bigger share of airtime.