TV UK, 15 December
Space Cadets: a comedy of cynicism.
Space Cadets (Channel 4 this week) is reality TV about reality TV. The gimmick is that the participants have been duped into thinking they are in space, when in fact this is a not very elaborate illusion playing on the notorious exploitability of the people who sign up for these things. Other than that it follows the usual reality TV format, alternating between artificial set pieces and the participants sitting around talking like bored teenagers.
In fact, deception is not entirely new – most famously the US series Joe Millionaire had women competing for what they thought was a millionaire husband, who was in fact just a regular Joe. But the scale of the deception in Space Cadets is impressive, and that’s where the cruelty lies. It is surely only because nobody would be stupid enough to fall for this that the participants tell themselves it can’t be a hoax. Apparently they were selected for ‘suggestability’ (in a more generous context we might just call them good-natured) and they are kept in line by actors playing their trainers, who are on the lookout for signs of doubt.
This is a comedy of cynicism. Anyone would think man had never been to space. The decrepit and ramshackle space paraphernalia used in the programme is the product of an extinct system and regime that is now ripe for the kind of patronising nostalgia expressed in the film Goodbye Lenin!. But the joke is on a modern society which, decades after man first conquered space, finds the whole idea incredible and surely a wind-up.
As for space travel, so for TV itself? Reality TV about reality TV is the fulfilment of a postmodern prophecy according to which culture eats itself, making political and moral seriousness impossible. The default disposition is bemused detachment and pisstaking. But life isn’t really like that. Space Cadets is light entertainment playing on the decadent strain in contemporary culture, but even on TV, there are signs of non-ironic life.
Two not especially good dramas in the past week have at least shown that the game is not up for televisual reflection on life as it is actually lived. Perfect Day (Channel 5 on Sunday night) and Silent Smile (ITV1 on Monday and Tuesday nights) were both very mainstream, ‘middle brow’ dramas but both exhibited a more sophisticated take on the prevalence of interpersonal distrust and anxiety in contemporary society than any number of cutting-edge, knowing reality shows.
In the former, a group of thirtysomethings fretted about their ambivalence toward marriage, and their general lack of certainty of what life is all about. It was not profound but it was well made and enjoyable. In the latter, such anxieties were taken to fever pitch with the appearance of a creepy, life-invading stalker (disturbingly played by the new Dr Who), who fulfilled the most paranoid singleton’s worst fears about other people, thereby demonstrating the feared fragility of the most basic relationships among family and friends. Again this was not great television, but it was well done and above all interestingly contemporary, offering inspiration to those who do aspire to make great television.
The history of non-reality TV is not over, it seems, as long as there is still a real world for it to fictionalise.