Reality Show Imitating Art or Something Scary Like That

By Ahsen Jillani

Writing this heading into the elections, the last thing I want to write about is elections. Actually, just hours ago, I finished my last political project and got in my pajamas and sprayed an organic screen cleaner on the dusty little TV in front of the camping cot in my office; I was ready for some chilled action.

This thing called Amazon popped up, followed by Netflix and HBO and all this visual clutter. Trailers started playing without me asking anything and in a panic I pressed the button on the remote that had a voice symbol and said Hello Siri and nothing happened. Hello Sarah. Hello Ashley. Hello Jessica. Nothing.

Over the last few months, I had been thinking about movies that influenced me way back when I saw movies, and I kept thinking about The Big Chill from 1983. It wasn't a romcom like Sleepless in Seattle, but it was quiet. I mean, nobody died. I mean, yeah, somebody died; that's what the movie was about – the funeral – but you know what I mean: it was stylish. All these search functions and I never found the movie; and I was prepared to even spend up to 10 bucks purchasing it just to celebrate the end of American politics (or the American experiment; however you want to see the current train wreck).

I turned it all off and looked for the movie on my phone, and opted to see the original 2-minute trailer from 1983 on YouTube. That was about all I needed. Deeper into that night, drinking some kind of kombucha tea my daughter had gotten and staring at my neighbor's five million candlepower security light pointing right at my face in this dead-end cul-de-sac in suburbia, I started to wonder – and bad things happen when I wonder.

When I saw The Big Chill in a theater in 1983, I was dating a girl who was a rich private school upper middle class princess. Hers was a world of country clubs and yachts, and she smelled of Pendleton wool and freshly baked apple pies. It was always a Southern Thanksgiving in the life she lived – beautiful fall weather, the political conversations, the smell of turkey, the abject dysfunctionality of America. I just loved being invisible in that world, because it was like I was nothing more than an invisible camera snooping on a culture that billions on this planet fantasize about.

Now I know things. Now I know things 41 years out, looking at the underbelly of the angst-ridden beast that corporate entities have created on a global level. This day in 2020, fresh from watching the trailer of a movie, I was wondering why Americans are always dancing in kitchens. I have been in the kitchens of some of the richest homes in this state, of mill homes, and of trailers, but I have never seen Americans dancing to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine" while loading plates in the dishwasher.

This is a pandemic virus – life imitating art. Watching celebrities dancing and singing makes us think that is some sort of normal behavior that we lowly folks just were never party too. We need to crank up the music. These actors worth $200 million dollars like to celebrate … because they are worth $200 million. Time was that no subcontinent bride would dare raise even her eyes during the wedding. Now, well, they shed the clothing and go into a line dancing routine that has been pre-rehearsed a hundred times before the wedding. The celebrity culture, the reality show culture, they now are our culture. They are setting the tempo, using a viral internet presence, for what we should be, for what we should believe.

America's greatest contribution to history has been its PR prowess. It is comical now to say it is an art form. It is actually a global disaster (and I include Britain in this). Concepts like “Blahblah Has Talent" are global, and using practically the same winning formula in numerous countries. The “Housewives of Beverly Hills" can now be “Housewives of Saigon." This is all about money, isn't it? Cultural shifts have become like Coca-Cola – you just need a cold one, even if you are standing in the middle of Nigeria (and pass me the 20-piece KFC fried chicken with the 300 secret spices while you are at it).

Landmark investigative shows dating back to the 1990s had raised alarm over the psychological warfare that entities like MTV and Disney were waging against the teenaged brain. They were actually going out and interviewing the average teen and delivering their wildest fantasies back to them in every frame of the videos, every episode of a sitcom; every movie. It really was about money. Hundreds of billions.

American politics has leaked like sewage into global politics – and it smells pretty bad. Not knowing the election results as I write this, I remain very scared. A significant portion of us have teenaged brains – and we love the World Wide Wrestling adrenalin rush; we love to chant slogans, we love the hats, we love to hate. The machinery of PR is like a CPAP device to us – without it, we wake up clutching our chests, struggling to breathe. We need that fix whether we are holding that greasy pizza slice in America, or that ghee-covered chicken leg in Mumbai. We need the show. We need to belong. We need to be tribal.

Need. No, there is really no need for the bride and groom to do a Bollywood line dance at their own wedding. Shahrukh Khan is worth $600 million. Amitabh is worth $400 million. They are not like us. They are creating a reality for us working class people. They are dancing in kitchens loading dishes, while real working class people are on Prozac throwing up due to stress. They are like the political elite, creating a reality that will change our lives while not really changing anything.

It's late. I'm now wide awake.

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Ahsen Jillani a former editor and publisher, is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and now lives in Mint Hill. He owns Must Media, a PR company focusing on both political and corporate clients.