I make an effort to do good works and improve my mind, but sometimes it's just too hot (here in the Bay Area, that means over 80 degrees) to do anything but sprawl in front of the TV and indulge in a guilty pleasure: reality shows.
I'd been an occasional fan for years. "Trading Spaces" had me transfixed for more than a year after I bought my current house and was in desperate need of design direction; and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was great fun in its first season. Lately, though I still gravitate toward the girly end of the spectrum, I've been watching a a lot of different shows on different channels. And here's what I've concluded: When reality TV succeeds, it's because it retells an ancient story--myth, legend, fairy tale.
What was "Survivor" but a combination of the Iliad (complete with sulking heroes, boastful idiots, and torchlit rituals) and the Odyssey (a transformative journey in which humans are transformed into scrabbling animals)? More recently, "Dancing with the Stars" (whose next season begins September 12) took the same battle/journey conceit, set it to music, and gave it comic relief.
Also submitted for your consideration:
"Project Runway": The Judgment of Paris in modern dress. Notice how, on the show's web site, supermodel/judge Heidi holds a pincushion that resembles the mythic golden apple; her frosty, smiling "Auf wiedersehn" sends an unfortunate mortal to the underworld. Like the Greek gods, the judges on the panel are cruel, vain, and arbitrary; the aspiring fashion designers in the contest are obsessed with triumph and fame and must be taught bitter lessons about hubris. Keeping his Olympian cool throughout it all is the impeccably suited Tim Gunn, chair of the fashion design department at Parsons The New School of Design. His mantras--"Make it work" "Carry on"--are worthy of any Stoic.
"Work Out": The squabbling gods on Mount Olympus. Again, the web site imagery is telling: bronzed, perfectly sculpted bodies draped in scanty white raiments like statuary. These trainers at a posh Beverly Hills exercise studio seem as immortal as Greek deities--and as silly and self-absorbed, too. They vie for the favors of studio owner Jackie, who can seem as imperious as Hera and--with her inexplicable attachment to her ninny girlfriend Mimi (or, as I think of her, "Me! Me!")--as fatally flawed as Pandora.
"Dog Whisperer": Is Cesar Millan really human? Did he cross the Rio Grande into the U.S. ... or the River Styx? We all wish we could understand what animals have to say, but most of us have a tin ear. Not Cesar. Like Solomon or Melampus--or Dr. Doolittle--he has an unearthly ability to communicate with animals. And he transforms their owners as well. For some superb insights, read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker profile.
"Wife Swap": Despite the smirking title, this is a resolutely chaste version of Aesop's "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse." Two women switch households, each walking in the other's shoes for a week (The horror! The horror!) and then making a few changes. In the end, everyone Learns a Lesson about What's Really Important.
"What Not to Wear": "Cinderella" with a touch of "Snow White." Mean stepsisters Stacey and Clinton surround the makeover subject with a magic mirror, they make snarky remarks about her "sad" or "scary" wardrobe, then hurl the offending items into a trash bin. Then--presto--Stacey and Clinton morph into the fairy godmother whose magic wand (a Visa card loaded with $5,000) and three wishes--actually, three sets of rules--give their victim/protegee the power to transform her life. Urchins become princesses, and the shoe always fits.