Has any television genre more accurately captured the cultural and economic gestalt of the Bush years than the better-living-through-consumption reality show? If you don't know what I'm talking about, you haven't wasted nearly enough time watching TLC, HGTV, the Style Network or Bravo, where vicarious consumption programming reached its apotheosis this season in "The Real Housewives of Atlanta."
Reality-based programming predicated on the vicarious thrill of watching people buy stuff has been around for six or seven years, having emerged (coincidence?) in the wake of the post-9/11 presidential shopping imperative. On the makeover/home transformation shows, the format has evolved but the basic gist hasn't changed: a style-challenged house, frau, or straight guy is given over to the ministrations of an expert or cadre of experts who variously tease, chastise, or flatter the hapless subject into tossing their belongings in order to buy new ones. Invariably, a shopping sequence in which the subject is given a fair amount of cash and a small amount of time in which to spend it is featured. The mad dash to the register has replaced the sitcom setup, joke, setup, joke as TV's most basic building block.
From the tsunami of self- or home-improvement shows starring average people, to the competitive reality shows in which amateurs compete to become purveyors of fine whatever, to the eat-the-rich extravaganzas like "The Real Housewives," these shows have helped define the times as clearly as they have helped create them. But times have changed. Now that the permanent spending spree has been recognized as a source of our national distress, the notion that there's no practical problem a little targeted consumption can't fix may be lot harder to get behind. For years, we've watched average people spend money in order to transform their wardrobes, their homes, their weddings, or their lives into something more suited to a TV show on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Property Ladder," "Flip This House," "Flip That House," "What Not to Wear," "10 Years Younger," "Say Yes to the Dress," "Rock the Reception," "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style," "The Look for Less," and many, many more.
Meanwhile, on shows like "The Real Housewives," we've witnessed the contemporary televised version of a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch, a Native American ritual gift exchange in which chiefs sometimes flaunted their wealth by pretending to destroy the gifts they'd just received. Modern variations on Robin Leach's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," shows like "Real Housewives, "Flipping Out," "Million Dollar Listing," "First Class All the Way," put the modest self-improvement dreams of the middle-classes to shame. This season, on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," Kim, whose patron/husband has declined to appear on screen, impulse buys a fully loaded $70,000 Cadillac Escalade. In the upcoming season of "The Real Housewives of Orange County," which is now being heavily promoted, Vicki Gunvalson buys a million dollar yacht. The ritual waste is tempered by the housewives' lack of self-awareness, but I'm guessing that Kim's tone-deafness (she wants to be a singer) and Vicki's general cluelessness will be of small consolation to the unemployed viewer with the shrunken portfolio and the out-of-control debt. It's a lot easier to feel superior to the foolish filthy rich when you can still pay your cable bill.
In Thorstein Veblen's taxonomy, excessive consumption fell into two categories: conspicuous and vicarious. The former had to do with the ritualized wasting of money in order to compete for status. The latter was considered the province of women, whose main role in society was the artful spending of their husbands' money. This bifurcation recurs on television. On the conspicuous side are the makeover shows, where middle-class optimists spend their way to slightly higher status for our entertainment. On the vicarious side lie the televised lifestyles of the newly rich and fatuous, the sad little status dreams of the optimistic middle class, with their faux finishes and their looks for less are swatted down to Earth with a single swipe of a Black Amex.
It's true that shows about the miserable lives of rich people have always been popular during times of economic trouble, but it’s one thing to watch the fictional Ewings and Carringtons (or Gossip Girls) push one another into pools and another thing entirely to understand that this money is for real. Still, it's hard to imagine a TV landscape in which the now-venerable conspicuous consumption shows no longer existed. What would take their place? "Real Housewives" suddenly forced to become real housewives? Extreme makeovers (home edition) featuring gas cans and piles of oily rags? Maybe we'll rely on them more than ever, begging friends and family to nominate us for an extreme refrigerator makeover, say, in which Mario Batali tosses out all the stale Doritos in the pantry and treats us to a spree at Whole Foods. Either way, I can't imagine a show called "How'd You Get So Rich?" (premiering soon on TV Land, with host Joan Rivers) won't do at least OK. I'm just not sure the question in the title won't be posed as a threat.
Carina Chocano has been a film critic at the Los Angeles Times and a television critic at the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and Salon.com.
By Carina Chocano