British TV Actor Jeremy Irons in the Borgias

He’s got that distant look off just right, no?

Last night, relentlessly sleepless after a rather large piece of rib-eye steak that wasn’t, for once, washed down with a couple of bottles of good Shiraz (hence still being wide awake, I guess) I ended up round midnight, family all asleep, aimlessly flicking the cable TV channels looking for something to keep the brain marginally occupied.

I’d just finished watching the last episode of the first series of the marvellously bodice-ripping The Borgias – what on earth does an actor of Jeremy Irons’ standing really think of acting in tosh like this? Helas, it’s all about the dosh, sometimes, I suppose – and a surfeit of murders, sex scenes and hard-core history had left me wide awake.

The Borgia's Francois Arnaud and Holliday Grainger

A big welcome to Francois Arnaud and Holliday Grainger

(Incidentally, whilst Irons was doing his “Jeremy Irons acting by numbers” bit, young French-Canadian actor François Arnaud was effortlessly marvellous in revealing the inherently awful nature of Cesaré Borgia. How could this apparently sensitive man adore his young sister so, feel disgust at the excesses of licentious medieval Rome, and yet not flinch to order horrible slaughter to protect his family’s position? Watching both the way his character was written, and the consistently compelling performance by Arnaud, I was reminded powerfully of those Nazi prison camp guards who would play adoringly with children in villages near the camp one day, and then throw living children in the camp furnaces the next, with no apparent understanding of the enormous evil and irony of their behaviour – or if they did understand, their exercise of the ability to compress their conscience to the extent that such a moral contradiction didn’t matter.

As the bulk of her work had previously been on UK television, the show also introduced me to the work of young British actress Holliday Grainger as Lucretia Borgia, and apart from being very pretty and winsome (she was apparently voted one of the 55 Faces of the Future by Nylon Magazine’s Young Hollywood Issue in May 2010 – whatever Nylon Magazine is) her acting in a relatively under-written part revealed real depth and layers of emotion. I see she is to play the cruel Estella in a 2012 production of Dickens’ Great Expectations; a role which I suspect she was born to play.

And yes, yes, I know, I know: I should have been blogging, not watching TV, but all work and no play, eh?)

Chelsea Handller of "Chelsea Lately"

Chelsea Handler

Anyhow, having devoured the last Borgias episode I came across American comedienne Chelsea Handler and her show Chelsea Lately. Whilst I often think this programme is testament to the absolute worst of faux-celebrity culture – can anyone enlighten me as to what Kim Kardashian is actually for, by the way? – I do enjoy Handler’s acerbic wit and that of the comics who share the stage with her for the first half of her show.

She is often unkind, but usually at the expense of those features of our society, or its citizens, who would receive much benefit from a jolly good slap up against the head, so I tend to forgive her when she herself falls into the traps associated with the mainly mindless psychological cruelty that seems to pervade much of America’s gutter culture – the seemingly endless obsession with people’s sexual antics or marital status, the latest beautiful face to command our attention momentarily, and people’s fluctuating body shapes or looks.

She is not afraid to be controversial. During the June 20, 2011 episode, while discussing doomed Amy Winehouse’s poorly-received performance at a concert in Belgrade, Handler read a statement by Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Šutanovac calling Winehouse’s performance a “shame and a disappointment”. Handler then stated, “Well, so is your country”.

The comment has since drawn criticism, with requests for Handler to apologize for the comment. A Facebook page and change.org petition have also been created calling for a boycott of Handler and E! until a public apology is given: apparently Handler has yet to comment on the matter. On June 25, 2011, Serbian Ambassador to United States, Vladimir Petrović, sent a letter to the makers of the show describing Handler’s act as “inappropriate, distasteful, and just plain bad humor”. Few modern comics touch such raw nerves, whatever the merits of her comments.

She also doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously, unlike most celebs, which is refreshing:  it’s as if she is permanently somewhat surprised that anyone seems to enjoy this puerile drivel.

Snookie, aka Nicole Pollizzi

Snookie, aka Nicole Pollizzi, does what she does best

What is less clear is the extent to which shows like Handler’s merely perpetuate the problem of moronic celebrity adulation, whilst simultaneously taking the piss out of it, and at risk of seemingly needlessly tendentious or censorious, that’s what I’d like to think about for a moment.

Last night, Handler welcomed a star guest (and no, if you don’t watch MTV, I am not making this up) called “Snooki”, aka Nicole Pollizzi, from the hit reality TV show Jersey Shore, which is essentially an excuse to watch a lot of relatively unattractive Italian background Americans (so-called Guidos and Guidettes) make idiots of themselves.

They fight, they drink, they hook up, they break up, they cuss. And that’s it, essentially.

The beginning of an adulatory interview with Snooki on Good Morning, America recently called the show “ground-breaking”. It’s also been called “a cultural phenomenon”.

A cultural phenomen? Really? Well, the University of Chicago has announced an academic conference that will examine the show. And in 2010, the cast of Jersey Shore was named on Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People list, (not that this is a great recommendation, as in years 2007-2010 she also nominated Sarah Palin, who is about as fascinating as watching paint dry), and the series has since exported to dozens of countries worldwide.

Thanks to the ever-increasing success of the show, Ms Pollizzi is now paid thirty thousand dollars an episode, and can apparently command the same sum for making a speech. In April 2011, for example, Snooki was paid $32,000 to speak at Rutgers University. Her message included what it’s like being a celebrity, and also what she thinks is important in school, including the sage advice “Study hard, but party harder”. There was a big uproar from both Rutgers students and alumni, who thought that Polizzi was invited merely for her celebrity status and was an inappropriate speaker for an academic setting.

Anyhow, on Chelsea Lately last night, Snooki waddled cheerfully on stage covered in ridiculous adornments, including a spiky bracelet which could have got her arrested for carrying a deadly weapon in most jurisdictions, but not around the studios of E!, apparently. (E! is the NBC subsidiary which makes Handler’s show.)

For the next five minutes or so, she burbled excitedly about her latest ventures, which apparently include a range of bedroom slippers, and the ubiquitous perfume release that seems a mandatory add-on to every up-and-coming star today.

(When asked about said perfume on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Snooki kindly offered that “I wanted it flirty and bubbly like my personality, and obviously something DTF.”

If you’re not sure what that means, ask Leno’s first guest of the evening, Jeff Bridges, as Snooki had to explain the explicit acronym to the actor during the show. Or Google it, as I admit I did.)

But that wasn’t always what she envisioned for her signature smell. Snooki said she originally wanted it to smell like pickles. “I like pickles so everybody else should like pickles.” But after sniffing the mock-up, which she said smelled like – shock! – pickles (and grass, apparently), Snooki chose to go in a more conventional direction.)

I did consider changing channels, but a cursory flick through the listings on the TV revealed a football game I already knew the score of, and a BBC show with a young man hunting down the owners of the world’s biggest breast implants and watching them strip on stage. Somewhat confronted, I stuck with Handler.

OK, now look: this is where I am going with this ramble.

I am sure Ms Pollizzi is a pleasant enough person underneath all the pretended outrage and set-up-for-the-camera tension (sexual or otherwise) that is the staple for such shows.

What worries me is that, beyond her gallons of chutzpah and a distinct lack of personal shame, she is hardly worthy of our attention. Nor are her fellow cast members.

Jersey Shore is merely the mental equivalent of one too many vodkas. It’s what you do when you’re slumped at a bar and you can’t be stuffed to go home. Yet millions of (primarily) young people watch the show with rapt if somewhat vacuous attention. The more moronic the behaviour exhibited, the higher the ratings.

My core question is this: is this type of mind-numbing nonsense essentially harmless – and our concomitant fascination with the participants – or is this kind of reality TV dumbing down our reactions to the real world around us to an as yet ill-determined but probably worrying extent?

I am reminded of all the research documents that reveal that hyper-violent movies and slasher computer games produce a de-sensitisation to casual violence which shows up as a lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions in some young people.

So is the inevitable result of shows like Jersey Shore that teenagers and young adults will gradually assume that all one really needs to do to end up on Chelsea Lately – talking about one’s ever-burgeoning business empire – is to allow oneself to be filmed 24/7, yell fuck repeatedly at one’s “friends”, screw around and not care who knows it, drink to excess (preferably in public), wear ridiculous clothing and evidence the all-important “attitood”?

Perhaps the most worrying indication that this might be the case are the many opinion surveys of pre-teen children (in numerous countries) who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, can’t actually nominate a career, but simply answer: “Famous”.

It’s also worth noting that on July 30, 2010, Polizzi was cited on a count of interfering with the quiet enjoyment of the beach, which AP called “essentially, disturbing the peace”, as well as for disorderly conduct and criminal annoyance of others. In a September 8 plea bargain, Judge Damian G. Murray sentenced her to a $500 fine and community service. In handing down the sentence, he characterized Polizzi as “a Lindsay Lohan wannabe”.

Needless to say, her arrest was taped during production of season three of Jersey Shore.

And on May 31, 2011 in Florence, Italy, (where the latest series was being filmed) Polizzi was briefly taken into custody by local police after the car she was driving collided with a parked traffic police car. According to Italian police, Polizzi was cited and released, and two police officers sustained minor injuries. Yep, it made it into the show.

Naked snowboarding: when will it be on TV?

Naked snowboarding: when will it be on TV?

At least back in the days of the Borgias, people basically knew this stuff was unhealthy. Not exactly “world’s best practice”.

But does anyone still care? Are the barbarians not so much at the gates, as already ripping them down and making snow-boards out of them for the next episode of Xtreme Winter Naked Snow Challenge?

In short, I fear for Snookie. I fear for her friends. I fear for those who watch her.

I think we’re losing the plot.

Oh, there isn’t a plot, any more?

Silly me.

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Comments
  1. Paul Brixey says:

    I think you should line up more bottles in future.

    Like

  2. Cal B says:

    Thanks for your thoughts- they are mine reflected in print. Deuces.

    Like

  3. Stephen,

    This is a fantastic critique of the crap that much of American society calls “entertainment.” I don’t know how celebrities are…uh…celebrated on your side of the globe but here, even the slightest aroma of fame on someone can turn the blogosphere and the local press upside down. We’re a society that glorifies our morons and uses their all-too-public foibles to make ourselves feel better. I live in a small town in New Jersey and one of the “Real Housewives of New Jersey” lives here. She’s discussed in the local press with the same interest one would (or should) show towards a president.

    You asked what a Kardashian is for? Unfortunately I have no idea either. I’m not even sure where she came from in the first place, except that her (birth)father was one of OJ Simpson’s lawyers during that debacle back in ’95. That family serves the same purpose as Paris Hilton did or the wives of athletes that have their own TV shows.

    As stupid as some sitcoms may have been before the reality craze hit, at least they were creations of cartoon-like characters. Now the networks run as much reality as possible because it’s cheap and millions of Americans are entertained. Good sitcoms or dramas are cut from TV because they cost too much money. So we’re left with hours of programming blocks and, in some cases, entire channels devoted to these people who have nothing to say and serve no real purpose in society.

    I could go on and on but I need to watch my blood pressure. Anyway, thanks for the post, Stephen. I really like your writing style and wish I would maintain my blog with the same frequency as you.

    Like

    • Thank you Michael, both for the support and the kind words about my writing style. I am not sure I “maintain my blog” as get drawn to it like a junkie to a fix, but thanks anyhow! Please kindly let your networks know about the article as well; so far it is by some distance the most popular piece I have written, so hopefully we can get it to a wider audience. Once again, I appreciate your comments very much.

      Like

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  7. You could have easily just said, “who in Hades are these idiots and why do Americans pay good money to watch them?”

    Of course the answer is rather simple. It is for the same reason we crane our necks at a car accident to see if anyone is dead or maimed, we simply can’t help ourselves. We watch, we point, we shake our heads and in the back of our minds we thank any deity that comes to mind that we aren’t them.

    Like

    • But what effect does it have on us while we watch and pray thanks we aren’t like them? Do our minds become desensitised? Dulled? Infected? I dunno – and I probably shouldn’t be so serious about such fluff – but it genuinely worries me. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment – I hope you come back and do so often. Any reposts of the blogs that you like would be much appreciated 🙂

      Like

      • I suspect we are affected by this lowest form of ‘entertainment’ depending upon the weakness of our mind. There are teenage girls who want to emulate Snookie; they are foolish children who will hopefully grow out of it. There are adults who are glued to their televisions to watch the bubble brained, vacuous doings of the ‘Wifes’ of the various cities (Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills).

        The problem we have today, especially in the US, is we are fed this trash with the fire hydrant on full. We have these know nothing, done nothing famous for being ignorant / famous for having sex on tape / famous for drinking, drugging, etc ad infinitum and these are who our young people look up to. There are a list of these inconsequential ijits longer than my arm, yet they earn their living on television reality shows, making guest appearances and help me Jesus ghost writing books (this from people who are barely able to string 7 words together to form coherent sentences).

        Are we affected? Surely we are in many ways. Suddenly these bimbos become the standards for beauty and normal women are judged against them. Suddenly these light on the heels creatures become the standard for ethics and morals, our young women want to be like them and we can’t convince them that parades through their bedrooms will not in fact make them more popular.

        Gad, please don’t get me started.

        I have already pressed the Follow so I can visit often (I will let you figure out how I found you).

        I frequently tweet and facebook. I am also going to add you to the Green Room, a place for Bloggers to get their sites noticed hosted by a friend of mine(if you want).

        Like

        • Well actually, the post was written precisely to get people like you started! So please babble away increasingly furiously until it’s out of your system.

          Interestingly, the Snooki post is far and away the most successful piece I have written (judged by viewers) other than the two posts on advertising f*** ups, which in itself makes much the same point as the original article.

          I also recommend you read “A really great pair of tits” which is something of a companion piece, if you haven’t done so already. I think you’ll enjoy it.

          I would be delighted to be added to the Green Room, thank you, and I again am most appreciative for your encouragement and support. You can find me on twitter at yolly1234, but I usually only use it to alert people to an article.

          Best, Yolly

          Like

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