Reality TV–that bizarre, animated, audiomated, semi-scripted, overproduced amalgam of schadenfreude and wish fulfillment–inarguably sends echoes throughout this geocentric Petri dish we call popular culture: Jersey Shore Christmas ornaments, five figure Kardashian tweets, and even the name of this very column are just some of the nouns which originate from Reality TV. These nouns must surely be mere side effects of Reality TV. What, then, is the purpose of modern Reality TV?
In its original form, Reality TV was meant to inspire, to challenge, and to stimulate the viewership. And the echoes of olde, ruther than merely inspiring the name of a weekly comic column, actually inspired a regular comics feature. “Roy Raymond: TV Detective” ran as a backup series in DC’s Detective Comics. The titular character presided over his own show, Impossible…But True! which was an ersatz version of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, itself an early sample of Reality TV. Or it would have been an ersatz version if not for the exclamation point (!) in the title.
The recurrent premise is this: an uptight, humorless video sleuth brings extraordinary claimants onto his Reality TV show. Then, like any friendly host, Roy Raymond goes about the serious work of debunking their extraordinary claims. Imagine a Scooby-Doo series where the monsters come to the meddling kids (with their lovable, talking dog) and challenge the kids to prove they’re really just green-eyed uncles skeering their pretty nieces off of secretly-oil-rich property and not werewolves or ghosts or the ghosts of werewolves…only there are no werewolves, and there are no ghosts, and there are no meddling kids, and there is no lovable, talking dog, and you’ve got the right idea.
Being perpetually uptight and humorless and debunky is harder than it sounds–therefore, even Roy requires the occasional day or seven off. So it is that the reader catches up with him at the genesis of a theoretical vacation. As Roy lounges in the lobby of his hotel, a monkey-faced jamoke asks the concierge, “I heard that Roy Raymond, the famous TV Detective, is vacationing at this hotel! Could you point him out to me?”
Apparently, this monkey-faced jamoke needs a clue as much as he needs a dick (as in “detective”–what else?), or Roy hain’t all that famous, because the famous TV Detective is standing right next to said monkey-faced jamoke when said monkey-faced jamoke asks his monkey-faced question. The monkey-faced jamoke presents to Roy a note found in a flagon, a flagon not being a gay slur but rather being a metal bottle usually used for delivering adult beverages to adult lips but which can substitute as an envelope in a pinch. “I am in a cave at the base of Kull Peak,” reads the spider-like cursive adorning the note. “Help! (Signed) Joseph Walsh.” This message was allegedly sent 200 years before, in 1755, which explains why nary an LOL nor an IMHO can be found in its TXT.
An investigation of Kull Peak reveals a concealing curtain of lush. When this verdant shroud is torn away, a quaintly-dressed sleeper, nestled like a molar in a hidden cave mouth, is “revived by the sunlight.” After identifying himself as the Joseph Walsh who wrote the flagon-note (and not the Joseph Walsh who plays guitar for the Eagles and who is probably the same age), the sleeper recounts a secret origin exactly like Rip Van Winkel’s. This particular snoozer, however, managed to put ten times as many years under his somnolent belt as did his famous Van Predecessor.
Jeriatric Joe remembers that, as a much younger Joe, his senses were “reeling” after he imbibed some magic elf extract. “I will soon lose consciousness, but before I do, I must write for help!” the spritely he supposedly supposed. “I–I can use the juice of these wild berries as an ink.” That’s a lot to ask of reeling senses, but it pales in comparison to the Herculean task of throwing the flagon-dressed note in any meaningful way…because, y’know, the twenty feet it might fly before flagonning back to Earth could make all the difference where rescuers are concerned. To wit:
Hypothetical Rescuer 1: Hey, what about that non-vegetation-enshrouded cave over there? Think we should check it for that young chit, Joe Walsh, who has recently gone missing and who won’t play guitar for the Eagles 220 years from now?
Hypothetical Rescuer 2: Nah, it’s twenty feet away, and I don’t see lying around any flagons containing a letter saying he’s in there. Instead, let’s go back to the cabin and mutually masturbate while waiting for someone to invent television.
Roy, apparently forgetting completely the notion of vacation, decides to administer a test, asking Old Joseph Walsh to sign his name with a ball point pen. The subsequent writing perfectly matches the arachnitastic diction of the flagon note, adding credence to Old Joe’s claim. What’s a celebrity skeptic who isn’t the cute guy on Ghost Hunters to do? “Something still bothers me!” Roy reports. “I must put him through further tests!”
The further tests culminate at the doorstep of recently-deceased tycoon George Walsh whose estate, adjusted for modern inflation, would be worth a cool 3.6 kajillion Washingtons (which would still only make it worth 0.2 Romneys). “My only descendant! >Sob!< Dead!" the hoary-pussed geezer laments upon learning of his recently-deceased progeny's recent deceasement. Rather than hit the nearest singles bar and set about making some new descendants, Old Joe asks his great-great-, ahih, great-great-GREAT grandson's lawyer about the, ahem, provisions of the will. "George's will does leave his fortune to any descendants--if there ARE any!" the lawyer reports, implying a rather...Schwarzeneggerian social life during George's salad days, bless 'im. The lawyer, being a lawyer, presents the old man with some paperwork which will transfer the fortune from the dead Walsh to the old Walsh, while Roy still frets. "I-I haven't been able to find a flaw in his story...yet!" the TV Detective grumbles about Old Joe. "Something still bothers me--but I can't figure out what!" When Old Joe is about sign-sign on the dotted line-line, it finally clicks for Roy, who remembers his first test, the initial name-signing. "If you really were from the 18th Century, you wouldn't have assumed there was ink in the pen!" Roy epiphanizes. "You would've asked for some ink to dip the pen into!" No bad-cop-requiring hard case he, Old Joe crumples like Snooki at closing time. "Th-That's right," h-he st-stutters. "They didn't have fountain pens in those days!" Joe and the monkey-faced jamoke are revealed to be co-conspirators trying to defraud the Walsh estate...which is when the Reality TV coup-de-grace arrives. "The plan wouldn't have worked, anyway!" Roy chortles. "[George] Walsh's will leaves his fortune to any descendants--and legally, you wouldn't qualify as Walsh's descendant! He'd be YOUR descendant!" As they say on the game shows: wa, wa, waaa... Obviously, Reality TV has changed since Roy Raymond's day, and its purpose has kept pace. Where once it inspired, now it conspires. Where once it challenged, now it enables. And where once it stimulated, now it sends us into a slumber so numbing and so profound and so final, it feels like it might last 200 years. ###