Reality TV and Literary Forms

I watch a lot of TV and have gone back recently to some of the Renaissance drama I studied in college, and there’s some overlap, particularly within that respectable genre popularly known as reality TV.

Let’s back up and think for a minute about genre. The word means type or form. Most of the time when we’re talking about genres, we’re considering the difference between poetry and fiction and essay (for example). But you can zoom in a little closer and think of genre in terms of story type. At the movies, Romantic Comedy differs from Horror (usually). On TV, “Law and Order” is substantially different from “Everybody Loves Raymond.” So too do you find differences in other media, such as Renaissance drama. Two of the more common genres in the drama of that period include comedy and tragedy, and more specifically revenge tragedy.

Comedy for the purposes of this discussion is a little different from the stanard “funny ha-ha” test we tend to apply to determine whether or not something is a comedy. Rather, it’s the literary form in which initial disarray and conflict (typically among couples) are resolved and result in marriage. “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” stand out among Shakespeare’s more popular plays. Another play I just finished entitled “The Dutch Courtesan” epitomizes the genre as well. Today, the literary form is embodied in pretty much any movie Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant stars in. Think for a moment about one that brings the two actors together: Notting Hill. Recall that the male and female lead are quickly attracted to one another and almost immediately find themselves busted apart by a major conflict. Grant’s character finds himself trying to fill the round hole left in his love life with various square pegs of women, and the movie resolves when the two characters are able to reconcile and form the couple that the plot dictates was meant to be. This is classic comedic form. It’s not the movie’s sprinkling of humorous scenes that makes it comedic (from a literary perspective) — though comedies do tend to be full of these humorous scenes — but is the resolution of conflict into the unification of wayward couples.

Think also for a minute about “Romeo and Juliet.” This early play starts out as a comedy and turns to tragedy. Two houses are at odds and the natural resolution for the conflict is the marriage of children of the two houses (at least within the context of feudal/royal courts that informs the play). And things are heading down that road until Juliet fails to get the message that Romeo is safe. At this point, the play turns to tragedy. Had she gotten his message, the two would have been married, the houses unified, and the plot tied up in a nice little package complete with sing-songy chorus at the end asking the crowd to applaud (common in Renaissance comedy).

Revenge tragedy is a little easier to describe because there’s nothing about the name that’s ambiguous as there is in “comedy.” In revenge tragedy, somebody’s angry and will stop at nothing to achieve satisfaction. More often than not, in his quest for vengeance, the revenger himself takes a fall. Revenge tragedy almost always closes with a scene in which most of the players die and a new authority figure steps up to guide the future toward happier circumstances. The most familiar example of this genre for most people will be Hamlet, in which, not surprisingly, a whole bunch of people are killed at the end and Fortinbras swoops in to set things right in Denmark. Within this blog, I’ve also written a quick synopsis of “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” which follows the formula dead on as well.

Now, to get back to my title, what I’m working toward is a supposition that one of the newer genres of TV show provides a superb example of these dramatic genres in modern times. As I’ve pointed out, it’s easy to find the comedic form on TV and on the big screen today. But revenge tragedy is a little harder to come by. Soap operas come close, and shows like Springer have elements of revenge tragedy in them. Where these fall short, I think the oxymoronic genre reality TV comes much closer. What’s more, reality TV provides us with a bizarre combination of the two genres.

Let’s start with pure revenge. The best example of this can be found in the early airings of Survivor. Once the novelty of being on a deserted island with a bunch of new people wears off, contestants begin to plot against one another, begetting circumstances favorable to vengeance. Participant X is spurned by participant Y, who goes out of his way to cause problems for participant X, get her voted off the island, etc.

(But it’s not the revenge so much as the general spitefulness that counts here.)

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