Monday, November 3, 2008 at 5:16am
A most ironic thing happened to me tonight on the eve of this historic election. I reached an epiphany moment: when it comes to the Bravo Network – I am as Red States as they come. I hate that fucking network. Aside from the re-runs of the West Wing (the last vestige of my Blue State’s sensibility), the programming on Bravo gets under my skin deeper than an entire day of MTV’s non-music line up.
At least with MTV I know the devil I’m getting. But Bravo devolved into Satan after being a sort of PBS on cable television steroids. It was an artist’s haven in the midst of mindless made for cable TV movies and a never ending loop of late night infomercials. I even tolerated, to a certain extent, the over the top gushing of Inside the Actor’s Studios pompous and perennial sycophant James Lipton. That all changed with the introduction of that hallmark of homosexual couture: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
I must admit, it’s camp value and unique cultural construct was a novelty act that I found to be slightly amusing if not mildly entertaining. But I could smell change a brewin’ and it had Gayville written all over it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Before there was “Logo”, homosexuals needed programs that spoke to their unique sensibilities. Queer Eye’s angle blended perfectly with the new direction of Bravo because it had at its core a socially conscious component: it was a way to make straight people (specifically straight men) feel comfortable with gay culture and, to a greater extent, a way to bridge the two worlds.
This is a good thing and by me stating this it makes my above assertion that I’m a Red States kinda guy (along with the fact that I watched Bravo in the early years because of its strong artistic and “cultural” cred) seem like a total head scratcher.
But herein lies the rub: this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has a feature article, “The Woman Who Knows How Cool TV Can Be.”
It’s a PR piece trumpeting the accomplishments of Bravo’s commander-in-heels: Lauren Zalaznick. She’s the new basic cable “it” girl and the mastermind behind Bravo’s “hip” line of programming: Project Runway, Top Chef and all those glossy make-up and hair salon shows, spoiled southern California housewives, obnoxious raspy-voice red-headed D list comediennes, and a host of reality competition genre pieces shot on high definition video that look like an indie documentary that has seriously lost its moral compass.
Here’s a few samples from the Zalaznick PR fest that have me actually considering moving to Alaska, buying a shot gun, downing shots of Wild Turkey and decking out in trucker hat and an under arm stained t-shirt that reads “U.S.A: Like It Or Leave It, Commie”:
Regarding a “dramatic twist” or “reveal” on Top Chef… “For her, the idea neatly captured the ruthless way the big city can chew up and spit out even the best provincial talents: ’It’s like you’ve really arrived in New York –it’s where you fight for your terrible pot-washing job after you’ve been executive chef back in wherever, and then you get fired for washing your pot wrong.’‘You don’t think it’s gratuitous?’ asks Frances Berwick, the general manager for Bravo.‘Guess what?’ Zalaznick said. ‘It’s the toughest city in the country.’… (regarding ways that she and an underling could ramp up the drama even more…) Berwick laughed and shook his head. ‘That’s terrible.’
EXACTLY! Yet not that, “oh you’re so naughty, ha-ha-ha” type of terrible. No, terrible in a –this-shit-is-just-fucking-awful-culture-coarsening-vapidity-that-lower-middle-and-upper-class-urban-and-suburban-American-women-and-gay-men-lap-up-like-it’s-crystal-meth-infused-lip-gloss –kinda way.
It goes on. “Terrible if you’re living it, great if you’re watching it –that is one of the basic formulas for reality TV, a genre that has been wildly popular for years, if never exactly hip. Zalaznick’s innovation has been to take this form of mass entertainment and make it boutique and chic, aiming for a small but young and affluent audience, the kind that advertisers covet.
The article then goes on to mention the demographic these advertisers are coveting (women ages 18-49… I know, I know the reason I’m missing the point is because: it’s not for me! I’m a white urban college educated male in the 18-49 male demographic… like Sex and the City, I JUST DON’T GET IT!), and they’ve even put a face to the Bravo watcher – a chic gay man and an upwardly mobile woman that they refer to as “Will and Grace”, or more specifically the Bravo Affluencers. They even created an offshoot magazine…
“A certain kind of advertiser, naturally, likes shows about high-end tastes and consumption. .. Berwick, the general manager, came up with a catchy name for this premium demographic: the affluencers… (on the magazine’s cover): an attractive man and woman, both in their late 20s, shopping bags and P.D.A’s in hand, passports visibly in pockets, dressed casually but stylishly, looking savvy, plugged in, on top of it.
Here’s where my Red States gut checking gets somewhat confusing. See, I’m an urbanite through and through. I’m your a-typical culture vulture who consumes left-wing movies, media and politics. I’m as Greenwich Village as any of my neighboring “hipsters” – including Ms. Zalaznick herself. As the article mentions: “With Bravo, Zalaznick has created for herself the luxury of making television for an audience, in effect, of her co-workers, her dinner-party guests, her successful, liberal neighbors in Manhattan’s West Village.” And it goes without saying that this is why the Sunday New York Times Magazine loves this woman; because she’s their key demographic.
Which leads me, as everything inevitably does, back to politics and the 2008 election. The Culture Wars have been going on since the late ‘60s. But when I joined the war – roughly around the late ‘80s – I was departing from an Italian-American family from Brooklyn, New York that embraces Red States politics based on lower taxes for small business, religious issues (those of conservative Catholics), and “Family Values”. They called people like Ms. Zalaznick – and the Kennedy’s of Massachusetts, and the tax and spend liberals of New York, etc. – “Upper East Side Limousine Liberals.” Basically, The New York Times’ key demographic that would embrace the media agenda of someone like Ms. Zalaznick.
Essentially, the article highlights the shear genius of Ms. Zalaznick – a Brown undergrad who started her career as a co-producer of the Harmony Korine indie flick “Kids”!!! – pitch perfect evaluation of the culture. Ms. Zalaznick and her underlings understand how to sell this “hipster” culture to the masses by realizing that America’s new drug of choice is voyeurism. And what pisses me off most about Zalaznick and her out of fucking control network is that she’s someone who started off making cutting edge independent films and studied “semiotics” as a major in college, and found a way to make shitloads of money dumbing down the culture by selling her shows as upper class, chic gloss “reality.” She is the standard issue liberal of the old school Bravo network and she found a way to merge it with the voyeurism craze kicked off by Survivor and then created an entire programming platform that took the initial genius of Queer Eye, stripped it of its soul and desire to unify disparate ideologies, added the element of competition and bitchy female backbiting and amped up the ego level to an almost Hitler-esque style of cutthroat schadenfreude.
The article goes on: Zalaznick still sounds more like a semiotics major than like the typical corporate cheerleader. To her, what she’s producing isn’t rampant consumerism on display to be emulated or mocked, or both—it’s a form of social anthropology, a cultural context as worthy of analysis as any other, an art form suitable for her intellects. She invests the small details of pop culture with great significance…”
And here’s where I go all Red States railing against the Liberal Elites. Zalaznick believes she’s just inviting all of the hip gay men and sophisticated urban women in on the joke – enabling them to laugh at how ironic it all is – like as if to say: “We’re not talking all of this shit too seriously. We’re just watching it the way we read People and US Magazine. It’s just fun and we like to look at the dresses, hairstyles and make-up.” And that’s all well and good, but Zalaznick is the only one getting incredibly rich off of the dream of a more fulfilling life through Liberal voyeurism.
Essentially, it’s really, really smart people selling dumb shit to people who think they’re smarter than the shit they’re watching. But at the same time, it’s incredibly condescending because it’s wrapped up in the same kind of Limo Liberal sensibility that infuriates the Red State voters who swing towards McCain.
In my estimation, the only reality TV worth watching is Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days on FX. Spurlock is the guy responsible for Supersize Me. His brilliant documentary show highlights a controversial subject and turns the tables on the participants. For 30 days, he’ll have a woman who is pro-choice live with an anti-choice family, or a woman who is in favor of more gun control live with a family of NRA gun aficionados. No, there isn’t any competition involved (and just for the record, Bravo is not the only network dedicated to competitive reality television or docudramas like Tori Spelling’s spoiled bitchy drama fest or that two Corey’s heinous freak show).
But Zalaznick and Spurlock are examples of two sides of Liberal media programming. Spurlock is clearly a Liberal. He hails from West Virginia, but he and his girlfriend are blue collar Liberals, like Michael Moore, who are dedicated to using reality programming to elevate the culture. Michael Moore can be gratuitously one-sided, but he’s also pretty damn funny. Spurlock doesn’t try and go for laughs, but he does try to go beneath the surface and dig up the truth buried in our sometimes divided nation.
Zalaznick wants to create the opposite of truth. In order to keep Bravo high up there in the ratings and her network competitive, she’s created shows that really nail the cultural zeitgeist. Unfortunately, that zeitgeist happens to be mind-numbingly vacuous, catty, and decidedly limousine Liberal.
Which is why the tone of the Times article made me almost want to enlist in the Red States army… if it weren’t for the power of the Obama message. Barack Obama is the antithesis of the Liberal agenda of Zalaznick – who has probably donated the maximum to his campaign and I can just imagine her Prius limousine decked out with Obama/Biden bumper stickers. Just like the Republicans who are at war within their party, Liberals also need to do some soul searching. The division is between the target demographic of the Bravo Network, and the Heartland style of the Democratic Party spearheaded by Barack Obama.
Being a New Yorker, I’m surrounded by the Bravo Network culture and it kind of gives me the creeps. I yearn for Obama’s America because it’s everything that the Bravo Network is not. It’s also a referendum on elitist Liberalism and amoral capitalism highlighted by the Hollywood executives that make oodles and oodles of dollars by coarsening a culture in which they hold themselves intellectually superior.
It’s ironic that McCain compared Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Obama is the polar opposite not only of this type of celebrity, but of the whole culture that feeds into it. I find the kind of reality TV competition dramas propagated by the entirety of the Bravo Network so disturbing because they fall in league with shows like uber-corporate wingnut Donald Trump’s The Apprentices on NBC (the parent network of Bravo programs such as Project Runway). Zalaznick is a hardcore, New York, Upper West Side former indie film producer and a hardcore Liberal who views the shows she’s producing as some Machiavellian anthropological study. She’s the kind of woman that kept me at arms length from the entertainment industry in general. The reason I didn’t, at age 25, move to L.A. and get a desk job in a studio to work my way up through the ranks to one day become some asshole producer or network executive, like Zalaznick, is because at the end of that rainbow stands Kathy Griffin at the podium winning an Emmy – for her beyond annoying Bravo “reality” show – telling Jesus to “suck it”.
That alone almost makes me want to vote Republican just to spite them. But that’s not going to happen… this time.