By Alex Searle
It’s all about the talent, as they say, and it’s out there. Somewhere in the dark cobwebs of the American landscape, the next big thing is waiting to emerge from the abyss. It won’t take long to find a plump, bleary-eyed, straw-eating teenage mother with crocodile skin and reedy hair to be the new diamond from the rough. Of course, where would our new star be without her cloying sob story about her mama’s selfless act of giving up her day job at the maple syrup factory to raise her eight children, or how she wouldn’t be singing had it not been for their dead brother Joe? It’s pure, unadulterated fodder. Yet, true to our impeccable form as a TV audience, we pounce on it like a bunch of retards chasing a butterfly.
And they keep it coming. The US version of the wildly popular The X Factor has swept the nation with its impressive marketing campaign helmed by none other than everybody’s favourite ex-American Idol judge. Yes, mon cher, I speak of the king of embarrassingly tight shirts, the champion of Astroturf hair; Simon Cowell. He’s the only man in the history of the universe to have spent as much time on tanning beds as George Hamilton, and he’s back. Hoping to pip the venerable American Idol formula with his own show, it is the latest, sleaziest attempt at cashing in yet again on his insufferable narcissism, which is rapidly approaching the size of a small planet.
And what, you may well ask, is that minute, swarthy, head-bobbing tadpole that seems to cling to Simon’s side everywhere he goes? Why, that’s Paula Abdul, and she’s returned to unleash her incoherent squeaking on the contestants. It’s just like old times. Joining the duo is LA Reid, who, with an unnaturally matte forehead was behind the successes of Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber. As you can see, he knows talent. Interestingly, the serenely beautiful Cheryl Cole, whose bouffant strikes a suspicious similarity to that of the late Amy Winehouse, was fired from her position on the panel within the first few episodes because American folks couldn’t understand her Geordie accent. Yes, well, it’s just another gleaming example of the warm, embracing nature of American cultural tolerance. So Nicole Scherzinger has since then been a convenient replacement, bringing a much needed Pussycat Dolls-pizzazz to the ageing panel.
As I’ve been following each episode with manic obsession, I’ve realised that the judges are but a skid mark on the underpants of the show. The X-Factor’s real magic is much more frightening, much more insidious. Notice how the dulcet Wagnerian aria complements the action at just the right moment as a young hopeful bares her soul to the camera. See how the product placement slowly floats its way across the screen and into our psyche. It’s like a soapie, but better. The characters are people like you and me, experiencing every moment with us at home. But just before you realise the whole shindig is more fake than Simon’s glow-in-the-dark teeth, a member of the crew walks in front of the camera. Then one of the producers is seen pouring words into Simon’s ear. A make-up girl is seen basting Paula’s face with beige powder. Hang on, what’s all this about? Why is the production crew being seen? It’s almost as if it’s not TV anymore …
And like a peasant panning for gold, you’ve discovered the nugget of the show.
The appeal of this glossy talent competition is that it isn’t supposed to be glossy. Simon’s wily media producers have designed a show so gritty and realistic that they’re not even bothering to hide the very tools and techniques that make it possible. They think that if they can enhance its realism, the ratings should follow suit. After seeing a few guys with caps holding up giant booms getting more screen time than some of the contestants, even I was momentarily sucked into this reality-reality-TV show. I clutched my remote, as motionless as a corpse on my sofa. It took me a few minutes to come to grips with what can only be called the moral molestation unfolding before me.
Emotional manipulation, false hope, vote rigging, lip-synching and outright dishonesty are all old hat. Every reality series that has enjoyed even minimal success has sold out for ratings and TV audiences are used to that by now, even bored of it. The shameless excesses of other reality shows like The Kardashians or The Bachelor have already mentally bankrupted television addicts everywhere. I was hoping this genre might soon run out of plastic and die quietly, but, to my chagrin, in struts The X Factor on the American stage. It is a formidable, if not deadly combination. Simon’s new TV tumour has exterminated any and all remaining moral boundaries. It’s infiltrated our shores, and it will no doubt be a raging success with its realistic-but-not-actually approach. We’ll eat it up as it eats us up.
I’d say more, but there’s something starting on TV now that I absolutely can’t miss …
Alex Searle is a second-year journalism student at the University of Cape Town.