I've never been a big fan of "reality" TV competitions. I caught a couple of seasons of Survivor--mostly because I knew one of the contestants--but other than that, the only such show I've watched regularly is Top Chef. For some reason, I find it relaxing to watch people figure out how to, say, create an upscale lunch out of a piece of celery, an avocado and a can of tuna.* And the writer in me, who deals with creative challenges all day, thinks, "Well, at least I don't have to solve that problem."
I find that while there is plenty of competition among the contestants
and occasionally outright nastiness, the "cheftestants" generally treat
one another better than contestants on Survivor. The main reason,
I think, is that the chefs don't vote one another out of the contest; a
panel of judges does that. Therefore, they don't have to spend all that
energy plotting how to stab one another in the back.**
prefer when the conflict involves how to keep a fire going in high wind,
or how to get a lot done in a short amount of time, and my favorite
challenges are about preparing healthy foods that taste good (after all,
as one of them once said, it's easy to make something taste good by
throwing a lot of butter into it; what do you do when that isn't an
option?). You get to see who can think on their feet, who has the
deepest toolbox, and how people respond to criticism.
season, I'm surprised by the way people react to the pressure. The
facades crumble, and some people shine while others get petty. Some
people cry and others laugh. Some hug the people around them while
others lash out.
While watching an episode the other night, it
reminded me of how to use pressure in fiction--not only to create
tension and move the plot, but also to reveal character. It's not
realistic for characters to respond to every crisis with cool perfection
and steely genius (unless maybe you're writing James Bond--but he's
already taken). Let your characters get flustered, make mistakes, blame
their troubles on someone else, cry, explode, and then--sometimes--pull a
rabbit out of a hat.
*Not an actual Top Chef challenge, but you get the idea.
**I do wish that these shows didn't feel so beholden to the Survivor model
of eliminating one contestant every week. We don't get to know the ones
who leave early that well, and it's painful to see a favorite pack it
in midway through the season. This has led to all sorts of challenges
where previous contestants are brought back or given extra chances. So
why not have a format where they don't get voted out each week, but
instead accumulate points during the season, and those points determine
who goes to the finale? It would be more like a sports season, with
people competing for playoff spots. But I digress. Which is why I stuck
this in a footnote.