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The Real Reality TV

Postcard from New York

By Alexandra N. Atiya

NEW YORK—I’ve developed a strange addiction to watching C-SPAN after midnight. I used to only watch Manhattan public access when I got the after-twelve TV craving—specifically “Spic ’n’ Spanish,” the saga of Big Al, a young Puerto Rican man who goes clubbing Monday-Sunday in pursuit of a perfectly shaped female ass to capture on his camcorder. Which of course, he’ll never find. No, instead Big Al has all sorts of other adventures, chasing women down and asking questions I can’t repeat, measuring different women’s degrees of what he has dubbed “freakiness.” (As a disclaimer, I feel I should add that Big Al pursues women of all races and places equally: black, white, Hispanic, New Jersey, Miami, Brooklyn, Manhattan—it’s all the same.) This show was actually a predictable destination after years of pathologically watching “Antiques Roadshow” (almost as good as mullet-spotting at the local Wal-Mart during the one and only summer I spent in Vermont), as well as those public-access programs where someone films his own Harlem dance party/wedding/roller disco, complete with a man in a dashiki, unstoppable Latin swingers and crazy xylophonists and sax players (wearing sunglasses inside at night, of course.)

C-SPAN was not so predictable a development. It started with the House of Commons, the British men in crisp suits bellowing and sweating in the clear colors of Channel 24. They would yell and debate and point and lose their tempers—granted, over referendums in counties I’d never heard of, or over rights to voting procedures which I’d also never heard of. I am slowly learning, in bits and pieces, about Ireland and the rocky relationship of England to the EU—but more than that, parliamentary TV is entertaining. It’s the two-drink minimum version of Congress, as my brother would say. Kind of a barroom brawl, with Tony Blair in the hotseat, a place that anyone involved in this Iraq debacle belongs. I relished it, though I relished it as a piece of fiction, as a film, as well as a truth: better drama than the West Wing any day. Tony Blair sits there in a clean white shirt, no jacket and a striped tie, trying desperately through equally desperate hand gestures to convey his good intentions. Our reason was good, he argues—more than good, it was humane, there was a danger, those weapons of mass destruction are serious and Saddam Hussein is even more so, both for us and for his people.

Which led me to think of our own dear President, W., and his position. And how he would die in that hotseat, sweating under the collar, loosening his red tie, small flag pin on the lapel of his jacket perfectly cocked, blind patriotism leaving him unaccountable. Humanity isn’t the issue for the fellow who referred to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as “the bad guys,” takes some kind of pleasure in the death penalty (which he affectionately calls watching a man fry). He doesn’t, of course, appear on C-SPAN. He doesn’t say enough to fill a sound bite, and certainly not to fill the hour-long slots. No, I watch the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Committee on Aging and the full House on that charming night when the Republicans called the police on the Democrats. I watch the meat of the debate, a reminder that the issues are more than: Are you with us or not? Are you American or not? It breaks down to 300 pages of pension bill text cut after midnight, it makes it down to tens of billions of pension funds gone in a flurry of Hill police, it breaks down to abuse of aviation authority in using planes to get Democrats back in the Texas House.

Far and away, the most addictive programming on C-SPAN was the FCC hearings. I watched Lewis Dickey, chair of Cumulus Entertainment—a villain in the classical mold, clear blue eyes and smug jaw—say that he did not force his local affiliates to ban the Dixie Chicks, that he called them and told them to do it, but it was something that they would have wanted to do anyway. I, of course, at 1:30 in a pitch black night, dressed in an oversized striped T-shirt and lounging on the couch drinking cranberry juice, heckle the small screen—ice hitting the edge of the glass, the juice about to fly. Suffice it to say that I expressed my discontent with Mr. Dickey, as well as with the man I thought his partner in this: Michael Powell, leaning back in his chair, responding to the inquiries with the confidence of a spoiled brat.

And like any other drama, my new serials have their darker moments—chief civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III in the confusion in Iraq or the Council meetings—when they show the personal causalities of war. I watched the constant reruns of British weapons analyst David Kelly’s questioning—the inquisition into this soft-spoken man. I watched as Kelly was pressed for information, to reveal whether or not the government had lied and to reveal whether or not he talked to a journalist. Then the journalist was pressed to tell who spilled, who gave him the scoop. It was a case of the ultimate betrayal, and I held my breath, even after they announced Kelly’s suicide. Who was to blame? Who hounded too hard, and who did not confess when he should have? Whoever it was sealed his death, and as the BBC newscasters ruefully admitted on the night after he was found, they played him like he was nothing more than a trump card, when he was a human being. A somber recognition, but one that was somehow moving.

The compassion I felt dying during the first few years of Bush’s tenure is now alive again. I’ve feel as though I have found a secret path into politics, a path which leads me to the human element, shows me the off-the-cuff bits which land somewhere on commercial cutting room floors. In short, C-SPAN is a way around the glossy sheen of Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s incessant deflection, a way around the incessant talking heads who spout the party line 23 hours a day. It is a bit of the truth, a bit of the voyeur, and if nothing else, it indulges me—a love of absurdity that comes after twelve.

Alexandra N. Atiya ’06, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Leverett House. She, surprisingly enough, actually does have a job, working for the New York Observer, where she writes items on recent apartment sales.

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