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The young, the restless and real TV

Is there, like, anybody in this country who’s confused? About what’s real and what’s TV? I don’t think so. Do you have trouble distinguishing between Kathie Lee and your mother-in-law? Do you think David Letterman is a human being? Do you believe the live-at-5 talking heads really care about tomorrow’s weather? Of course not. That’s what I mean.

Americans invented TV and, what’s more, we invented the culture of watching that goes with it. We’re the most sophisticated audience in the world. And nobody, I mean nobody, is fooled. What’s on TV is not real, what’s not on TV is (even though it mostly doesn’t matter).

So, what’s the big deal? “Reality TV,” as it’s called — “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” even PBS with “The 1900 House” — is supposedly doing irreparable harm to us voyeuristic boobs who can’t tell the difference between the tube and life. For example, here’s James Wolcott, domino-effecting in Vanity Fair: “The morbid, dangerous voyeurism of Rear Window has given way to a cold eyeballing.” He continues, upping the ooga-booga portent of doom, saying the new TV voyeurism is “becoming solely an instrument of control.” We’re watching ourselves being vampirized by the very medium we can’t turn away from. Ooooo, now that’s scaddy, as The Count used to say.

But who believes this? Not me, and here’s why: because voyeurism isn’t the deal. If all you had to do to enslave us supposed morons is video-eavesdrop 24/7 on a bunch of no-life losers whining about their problems, then “Big Brother” would be a hit. But the show stinks, starting with that insufferable woman Julie, the host. And what’s more, everybody knows the show stinks. Not because it’s debasing or voyeuristic or “real.” (No problemo there, as Jerry Springer understands.) “Big Brother” stinks because it’s bad TV. Get it? When there’s stuff on that’s good — because it’s kinky (“Court TV”) or new (“Whassup?”) or twisted (“South Park”), or nice-looking (any Target commercial) — we’ll watch, until we get bored, or until something better comes along.

So what is good TV? Taking two examples — “Millionaire” and “Survivor,” America’s current top-rated shows — that’s an easy question to answer. If everything on TV is fake, and if everybody watching knows this, then the good stuff is good because it’s good at being fake. This dictum includes so-called news coverage, by the way. Take the boring Russian submarine disaster, for instance, or any insta-cam on-site report of murders, plane crashes, etc. As long as the production values are satisfactory, with a good story line and nice visuals, and especially if there are weeping, out-of-control hysterical people on camera, then it’s entertaining to watch. But lacking those, who cares? Maybe it is a disaster. But it’s not good TV. And since this is television, and not a seminar on ethics, we get bored and quit watching.

Which gets back to “Millionaire” and “Survivor” — shows so extravagantly, happily, self-confidently fake about their “reality,” they can’t help but be truly watchable. They’re real fakes, and that’s why people tune in. Because it would be un-American to do otherwise. Because we care. Here are “real” people — Rich, Rudy, Susan, Kelly, or those palpitating, trivia-challenged schmoes on “Millionaire” — taking advantage of their opportunity to join our public culture and become just as fake as the big wheels — Regis, say, or the president. It’s televisual populism at its finest, as opposed to the dismal, smaller-than-life faking of “Big Brother,” which wouldn’t be interesting even if cast members did take their clothes off.

And that’s where “The Young and the Restless” comes in — the greatest (and fakest) of all daytime soaps (since 1973), which has long outlasted campy nighttime pretenders such as “Dynasty” and “Dallas.” And no wonder. “Y&R” is a classic; it treats our fake culture of television with high moral seriousness. It is to Americans what Shakespeare is to the Brits, or Homer to ancient Greeks; it comprehends fundamental truths about our national character that will go on being fresh and true long after merely trendy entertainments — “Millionaire” and “Survivor” — are gone.

There’s Victor at the center, brooding Zeuslike on the beautiful Ashley, to whom he is sometimes married (but not now), but whom he’ll always love. Like she’ll always love him, even though the scheming Diane, another no-longer wife, has impregnated herself secretly with Victor’s frozen sperm, that he denied to Nikki (yet another wife). And then there are the miraculously transformed children, who (if you didn’t watch for a season or so) are now suddenly adults with toddlers of their own.

Or Cricket, called Christine these days, who got her law degree like other people get a sore throat, overnight. And the dowager Kay Chancellor, who woke up in the homeless shelter, but who’s currently back in her mansion that she has to split with her archrival, the eternal bitch Jill, who once upon a time stole Kay’s husband. This is true plenitude (I’m only scratching the surface), 12 months a year, never a rerun. And is there any hint that this is the least bit outlandish? Of course not, because it’s real fakery.

I love this show. It is, in a word, seriously unbelievable. Just like real life. Just like TV.

Jerry Herron watches America happen for the Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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