Harriet Walker: Young, rich, fabulous, and desperate

Even if you enjoy the scenarios there is a whiff of desperation coming off everyone involved
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The Independent Online

The upper echelons may have been quaffing champagne like it's 1981, but we, the plebs, are hooked on a thoroughly modern drug: reality television. In particular, region-specific, "manipulated reality" TV, which gives us a chance to gander at the great and giggle at the gormless. Who says we're a classless society?

Recent programmes in the genre include The Only Way Is Essex, which features the would-be WAGs and glamour technicians of the south coast, and Geordie Shore, introducing the would-be WAGs and glamour technicians of the North Sea shipyards. Now, with Made In Chelsea, Channel 4 will supposedly document the young, rich and fabulous but really will just be uncovering the – yep, you guessed it – would-be WAGs and glamour technicians of the royal borough.

Where will our obsession with reality TV end? I don't hesitate even slightly when I answer: in this, the metatheatrical, sociopathic shitfest that is the current national obsession with Dayglo-reality docu-dramas. We have reached the point where it eats itself: praise be.

Back in the days of Big Brother, "real" people were persuaded into antic dispositions with the threat of their food being taken away. They weren't allowed books or magazines, in case they behaved too much like "real" people and simply vegged out on the sofas (of which there always seemed to be thousands, in the Big Brother House).

The eeality format, at that point, was a sociological import from the Dutch company Endemol, and we justified it by calling it an entertainment experiment. But viewing figures tailed off when most people realised it was little more than a freak show. Reality TV in the States – whence the new brand of scripted, hyper-manoeuvred shows comes – plays to that country's strengths, because it seeks out some of its many extremists and weirdos, and gives them a platform. In Britain, we don't have these types; we breed only homely eccentrics, buffoons and downright imbeciles – and watching them on our screens does not engender the best of the viewing public.

The only emotions that spring from watching shows like this – in which caricatured Essex Barbies wrestle with erecting tents and other social accoutrements for our disdain – are contempt and scorn. Hailed as a renaissance of working-class telly this oeuvre is simply a one-way route to ridiculing the types of people who put themselves forward for it. It brings out the very worst of our in-built snobbery and inverse snobbery, as well our general loathing of people who try to better themselves – none of which is particularly healthy.

But in a way, unlike X Factor or Britain's Got Talent, which attract some of the more vulnerable elements of society, manipulated reality draws from a "famous at any cost" or "get rich quick" demographic, neither of which are to be applauded.

I don't expect or wish the viewing masses to despair at the flouting of Aristotelian dramatics within these programmes, but the message must surely be clear. Even if you enjoy the scenarios, even if you laugh or cry at them, the whiff of desperation coming off everyone involved can only help subdue that seemingly ubiquitous desire to be on telly whatever the price.

These programmes are demeaning for those in them as well as those who watch them. This was something that became tangible as Big Brother ratings waned and a generation switched off from something that had once been unmissable. The newcomers transfigure the brand a little, but not much; there is similar self-loathing to be had here. If tuning in means that a generation of young people grow to despise that desperation to become famous, then perhaps reality TV has taught us an important sociological lesson once again.