Extreme goes mainstream

Maximum shock behavior pervades TV as real-life antiheroes feed the public's thirst for 'truth.'

Danny Moloshok/Reuters
Television personality Nicole ‘Snooki’ Polizzi of MTV’s ‘Jersey Shore’ is renowned for her over-the-top antics.

From Charlie Sheen's webcast riffs on drugs and sex to MTV's "Jersey Shore" to Bravo's "The Real Housewives" living out loud from Miami to Beverly Hills, not to mention Oxygen's "Bad Girls Club," a new entertainment genre is coming of age in pop culture media.

Call it "Theater of the Blurt," or "Id vid" – after Freud's term for the primal, unfettered side of human thought – where extreme, unmediated behavior is packaged for maximum shock value, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

The key components of this upstart genre are over-the-top behaviors and language served up in what is often the slimmest of narrative contexts. Think Mr. Sheen's roadshow "Violent Torpedo of Truth," or the pell-mell pace of Snooki of "Jersey Shore," the housewives, or the dysfunctional bad girls.

"You could almost compare it to pornography," says Mr. Thompson, not only for its deliberately titillating content, but for the lack of reliance on traditional narratives to keep viewers engaged. "In porn, there is always this shred of context, but really what people tune in for is the extreme behavior, not the character's back story."

An addiction to fast and flimsy

The comparison may be apt, says psychologist Scott Allison, coauthor of "Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them." He suggests that viewer interest in such runaway behavior as Sheen's boasts or one "bad girl" slicing another's hand with a handbag is a form of addiction. "This pervasive craving for the weird and dysfunctional is like being addicted to [fast food]," he says. "These often freakish and dysfunctional people give us shock or emotional jolts."

The genre clearly plays on people's timeless fascination with the foibles of the rich or famous, but "technology is the accelerant," Thompson says.

In other words, short-form modes of storytelling such as Twitter and texting have created an entertainment culture with a growing appetite for fast and flimsy narratives. Consider two of this season's TV miniseries: "The Kennedys," about the storied American political family, and "The Borgias," a 15th-century papal Italian family. Both series may have many biopic conventions, but, says Thompson, compared with earlier controversial miniseries such as "The Reagans" (2003), both these current shows heighten far more shock-value flaws, such as unlicensed drug use ("The Kennedys"), serial womanizing, and ties to organized crime.

This take on the genre shortchanges the appeal of shows such as the top-rated "Bad Girls Club," says Jane Olson, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy for Oxygen Media. The channel's three-year-old tag line, "Living out Loud," reflects what Ms. Olson calls a new generation of young women who want to live life on their own terms. "These characters are very real and appeal to young women who don't want to be told how to live their lives," she says, adding, "authenticity is a key driver for our programs."

A public demand for 'truth'

Public thirst for "truth" – in this case a kind of unscripted, original living – feeds the genre's appeal, says Matthew Brosamer, associate professor of English at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles. People gravitate toward narratives with even the patina of being "real," in this way, he says.

There do appear to be some limits, however. The recent, behind-the-scenes tussle over "The Kennedys" scored one for the forces of family boundaries. Both Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver put pressure on History, the original sponsor of "The Kennedys," leading the cable channel to drop the show in January, says The Hollywood Reporter news editor Matthew Belloni.

Of course, the media coverage of the brouhaha was a boon for the little-known ReelzChannel, which recently aired the series. The channel scored its highest ratings ever on the debut night, with nearly 4 million viewers tuning in.

Is discretion passé?

There is scant evidence that the social-media generation has any patience with respecting such boundaries, says Susan Mackey-Kallis, author of "The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home in American Film." "This is a generation that does not privilege privacy for itself," she says, "let alone for anyone else."

The culture of narcissism that underlies much of the social-media interaction, the "I am the star of my own movie" ethos that breeds a hyperconfessional, tell-all online modality, renders discretion and dignity passé.

Widespread and deeply ingrained cynicism about the behavior of present-day public leaders, such as presidential-hopeful Sen. John Edwards and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, also feed a public desire for both truth and answers, says Ms. Mackey-Kallis. People feel they have a right to know how public figures conduct themselves in private, and, she says, "we watch because we want to know what drives these people."

Feeling better about our choices

Outsized public behavior can be both a vicarious acting out and a cautionary tale, says Gordon Coonfield, media professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. We are fascinated with the seamy side of history, of celebrity, of the romantic entanglements of millionaire bachelors, even of the ordinary people whose lives and loves have found their way into our living rooms, he says via e-mail, "because they enable us to examine our own lives – for better or worse – and find ways to choose to live them differently."

Human beings are on a constant search for stories in which they can see themselves, says Christopher Auer, chair of the film and television department at Savannah College of Art and Design and a former Hollywood television writer. Finding the weaknesses in powerful people such as the Kennedys has become a way for audiences to see themselves, he says. By bringing the elite down to the recognizable "Everyman" level that pervades reality TV has become a form of connection and self-assurance.

"It's very basic," Mr. Auer says. Between Charlie Sheen melting down "and Snooki behaving so badly ... I look at all this and think, 'Wow, my life is suddenly more bearable.' "

But what about role models? The fact that notoriety of any sort is often richly rewarded can make moral distinctions murkier, says John Baick, history professor at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass.

Take, for instance, the $32,000 Rutgers University recently paid Snooki to address the student body (her salient advice was "study hard, party harder").

There is a deep cynicism underlying the attraction to what Professor Baick calls nihilistic antiheroes. But he understands why it happens because people are daunted by the media overload and look for a simple answer. "You can see what's driving Charlie Sheen right away," he says, "while understanding the budget or health care is hard."

Simply put, cool-headed reason or complex characters do not fit as neatly into a tweet as outrageous or virulent outbursts.

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