Bigg Boss, Jersey Shore, and the Universal Appeal of Trashy Reality TV

Pop Culture

Bigg Boss, Jersey Shore, and the Universal Appeal of Trashy Reality TV

Illustration: Arati Gujar

I

have a confession to make: I’ve never been a fan of Bigg Boss. Like an increasingly small number of people, it seems, I’ve just never understood the appeal. And as Season 12 of the reality show begins, it’s hard to escape the drama. So far, I’ve been informed about the scandal of having singer Anup Jalota and his much younger girlfriend, Jasleen Matharu, as the season’s “vichitra jodi”, and I have learnt what a vichitra jodi is. I know that Deepak Thakur is not just the name of my school PT instructor, but also a Bhojpuri singer, and that Sreesanth is apparently still a thing – all without ever having seen an episode of Bigg Boss.

To be fair to the nation’s guiltiest pleasure, I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, or hit the trail with Roadies either. My reality TV consumption is limited to trashy cooking shows and memes of besura Indian Idol contestants. But the inescapable magnetism of Bigg Boss reminds me of a time when watching a scheduled trainwreck was a part of my life.

The concept of cramming a bunch of oddballs into a house and filming the fuckery is not exclusive to Bigg Boss. It’s a tried-and-tested reality formula, and it always works. Because even more than the competition, the Boss himself, or the ridiculous challenges, fans of the show are there for the cast of characters. This is why I fear I might someday join them, as a Bigg Boss girl in a Bigg Boss world.

You see, back in my college days, I was just as skeptical of another classic reality show: Jersey Shore. In my dormitory was a common room with a single TV, and somehow, the girls all decided that it should be used for viewings of the then-novel show about a group of boisterous Italian-Americans who are forced to live under the same roof for a summer. Unlike Bigg Boss, there was no contest, unless you count the weekly battle to drive each other progressively insane. There were no cash prizes or eliminations.  Instead, the reward came from watching the specimens on-screen.

Despite my initial protests, FOMO soon kicked in, and I found myself loving the Shore and its colourful inhabitants. They made terrible decisions, brawled with each other at the drop of a hat (or hair extension), and were always far too loud. Their three commandments were to gym, tan, and laundry, all activities that I would gladly give up forever. Like the Bigg Boss House, they are not allowed any electronics and contact with the outside world. Entertainment pretty much consists of fucking with your cohabitants, or just fucking them. In short, you, I, and most others, are not cut out for life on the Shore, nor in Salman Khan’s den of iniquity.

And yet, Psychology Today, an American publication, contends that reality fans have the mentality of the average Indian politician: all publicity is good publicity, and absolutely anyone can achieve fame and status, so long as they command attention.

A Washington Post article titled “Why Do We Watch Trashy TV?” points out, “We exist in a complicated cultural environment where we no longer take the products of media at face value. We make aesthetic and moral judgments about TV shows – ‘that was awful,’ ‘this is trash’ – but we keep on watching. Conflicted, we want to have it both ways; we try to hold on to the idea that we really do have ‘good taste’, even as we consume television we judge to be terrible.”

My reality TV consumption is limited to trashy cooking shows and memes of besura Indian Idol contestants. But the inescapable magnetism of Bigg Boss reminds me of a time when watching a scheduled trainwreck was a part of my life.

For me, watching these shows holds the same far-off fascination as an episode of Planet Earth: Just like Bigg Boss, the entire ecosystem of the Jersey Shore house is so different from mine. I’ve never been arrested for public drunkenness, or had to fight my roommate to eat the last egg, so to see it happen to others gives me a thrill of schadenfreude. There’s the quiet satisfaction of knowing that however poorly my life is going, at least I am not currently throwing a chappal at someone. Equally fascinating is contemplating what kind of human would willingly sign up for a reality programme that, in both cases, is a cross between a dysfunctional joint family and The Truman Show.

I can’t say what studies would reveal about Bigg Boss and the Indian viewer. It’s easy to take the high ground and say that if I were on Bigg Boss, I’d wait out the other sods by sitting quietly in a corner, until the time comes to claim the prize. And yet, like all of us, I know the truth deep down. I know that if I were trapped in a house with a bunch of C-list entertainers, all vying for fan support, food, and TRPs, all being carefully watched like so many lab rats, I would waste no time in sticking my elbows out and grabbing that last egg from under Hina Khan’s nose.

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