When Reality TV Approaches Actual Reality

If you think of it as evolution, then Ricky Schroeder's wife Andrea was one of the first fish to crawl out of the ocean. When she appeared last year on Season 2 of Bravo's Top Design, she heralded a fascinating television trend: Famous people appearing on reality shows about... normal people.

That's different than famous people freaking it up on The Surreal Life or winking at their status on Dancing With the Stars... you know, shows where a participant's fame is the ostensible reason to watch. When Andrea Schroeder went on TV to compete as an interior designer, she was... just another designer. I mean, yes, she talked about Ol' Silver Spoon several times, but the focus was generally on her fabric choices. She was a celebrity, de-celebritized.

And okay, okay... Andrea Schroeder isn't really a celebrity. But like I said, she's one of the early species in this evolutionary event, just like Gary Hogeboom, the former NFL quarterback who was on Survivor.

At this very moment, however, reality TV is giving us two fully-developed examples of the "de-celebritized" celebrity, and the consequences are fascinating.

First, the current season of Survivor features Tamara "Taj" Johnson-George, who is a member of 90s girl-group sensation SWV. And before you say, "Who?", let me remind you that SWV got a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, had a number one single, and sold millions of records. That's more than enough to qualify Taj for Celebrity Mole or some such thing, but instead, she's on a show that subjugates everyone's identity to the game they're playing. Her former glory is not the purpose of the series: The game itself is.

The same is true for The Amazing Race. No matter their backstories, the contestants are always more focused on getting around the world than on themselves. It's one of the reasons the show is so great: The producers give us enough "personality" to make each team interesting, but they never let the racers overshadow the race. In fact, teams often come across as types as much as people, and their narrative hooks--"Newly Dating" or "Ex-Cons" or whatever---are listed right beneath their names. That's a brilliant balance of the specific and the general. It lets us identify with the team that most resembles us, but it also let us imagine ourselves racing in their place. The racers are specific people, but not so much that they destroy our fantasy that we're bungee jumping with a loved one.

And that's why it's so weird to see a movie star on the show. This season, Mike White, writer and co-star of fantastic movies like School of Rock and Chuck and Buck, is running the race with his father, Mel. But his movie stardom isn't the hook. Instead, it's that he and his dad are both gay. In other words, the Whites could be any other gay family team. Mike White's celebrity isn't the point.

Nor does his fame exempt him from sliding on his butt down a mountain while holding a giant block of cheese (like he did last week). And Taj's fame isn't sparing her the regular indignities of being on Survivor.

That treatment makes both of these reality shows seem much more real. By stripping away the fame veneer that the media lacquers on even the dimmest stars, Survivor and The Amazing Race turn Taj and Mike White into regular folks, no different than anyone else in their games. The pop diva could get trounced by a housewife. The actor could get smoked by a pair of flight attendants. How refreshing. Considering the fame-whoring and star worship that's inflicted upon us every day, it's nice to escape into these game shows, which insist that stars are regular people just trying to (ahem) survive.

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