Why Reality TV Is Good for You

February 21st, 2009

What I’ve learned from “Top Chef”

As the wife of a TV writer (and the sister, sister-in-law, and friend of many more), I should be morally opposed to reality shows.  They’re not the only reason network sit-coms and dramas no longer dominate  the airwaves, but they’re definitely a leading one.  And there’s a lot to hate about reality shows (and the contestants on them): sometimes there’ s a real lowest common denominator aspect to these shows, with people acting rudely, selfishly, stupidly and childishly.

I’m not interested in shows that put a bunch of people together in a stressful situation so we can watch them being petty and angry and anxious–I can just drop by my daughter’s fifth grade class if I want to see that.  No, the reality shows I love are the ones that take people with genuine talent and make them compete against each other in creative ways until there’s one winner left standing.

Does the most talented person win?  Not necessarily.  Success, you realize watching these shows, isn’t just a reflection of talent.  You need to be good at something to get in these competitions in the first place, but you need a winner’s personality to end up at the top.

So what makes a winning personality?  A lot of times people on these shows will refuse to lend someone a helping hand, saying things like, “Hey, it’s a competition–I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to WIN.”

That is not a winning personality. That’s a jerk.

You know what makes a winner?  Resilience.  The ability to take some kind of unexpected hit, re-evaluate the situation, make a new plan, and move forward without dwelling on the original problem.

I’ve seen it over and over again on “Top Chef” (my favorite reality show except when “Project Runway” is on the air and becomes my favorite reality show).   Problems crop up–some accidental (a broken finger), some deliberately set up by the producers  (inadequate cooking facilities) and some of questionable derivation (that open refrigerator door which ruined the meat–was that an accident or were the producers looking for some extra drama?  I’m a little cynical about these things).

The cooks who aren’t left reeling by these blows, the ones who process them by taking just one brief minute to freak out and then get control over their emotions, who then immediately take stock in what they still have and what they can still do, who take time to think about the best plan under the new circumstances, and then who put out their very best effort to make that new plan work–those are the ones who tend to last until the very end of the show.   And, interestingly, they often do their best on the weeks when they have the most adverse situations, which makes me think that complacency is the enemy of genius.

I had a rough moment a few months ago when I was working on this next novel of mine.  I had written maybe a quarter of it when I got hold of another 5 Spot book, already published and written by someone I admire.  I was enjoying reading her novel . . . until I got to a scene where the plot pivoted on EXACTLY the same plot point I had recently outlined for my unwritten novel.   Same genre, same publisher, and I knew her personally–there was nothing I could do but ditch that plot line and start over.

So I did.  I kept what I could and revamped the storyline so it no longer used that one same event.  I wasn’t even that bummed: I had a couple of hours of feeling sorry for myself, during which I complained about it to anyone who’d listen, and then I mentally shrugged and reminded myself that my books always involved a lot of rewriting to improve and all this meant was that I was doing more of the rewriting early on in the process rather than later on.  No big deal.

I wish I could show the same kind of “pick myself up, dust myself off”  resiliency when it comes to my far more important career: being a mother.   Too often, I’ll feel minor things as huge blows and immediately go to the failure place: my kid wants to quit karate?  He’ll never succeed at anything, ever, in his whole life.   And it’s all because I didn’t mother him correctly.

Of course, what I should be doing is revising my plan.  So my kid doesn’t like karate?  That frees up time to keep searching for something he does love to do.  Sooner or later, he’ll find his passion and if it isn’t what I thought it might be, well, then, maybe it will lead to something better than I ever imagined.   

Of course that’s easier said than done.  The stakes are simply too high with kids.  You can’t rewrite them and you can’t mix them with pudding and turn them into a chocolate trifle (something I’ve been known to do with broken cookies and fallen-down cakes).   But teaching them resilency by modeling it yourself–that you can do and that’s a goal of mine.  

A set-back is only a disaster if you can’t surmount it.  If you can, then it becomes an opportunity to do things another way–maybe even a better way.

So here’s to good reality shows and all they teach us.  And here’s to Carla on “Top Chef.”  I’m rooting for you, babe–anyone who’s good-natured, helpful, kind, and puts “a little love” in everything she makes is a winner in my book.  Especially when she cooks all the arrogant men under the table.   You go, girl.

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