Reality TV thrived for a long time for satisfying the public’s apparent interest in watching rich, famous and vacuous numbskulls bump heads in the likes of The Osbournes and Celebrity Big Brother, but recently there’s been a marked shift to examining those less fortunate (financially speaking). Following on from the likes of Tower Block of Commons and the vile How the Other Half Live is The Scheme, a four-part docusoap that follows a year in the lives of a select few living in Kilmarnock’s Onthank housing estate. Naturally, the volatile lives of the appallingly underprivileged make for some intense watching, but is this a Jeremy Kyle-style, zoo-like exploitation of the dispossessed or a genuine attempt to spread awareness of Scotland’s intolerable levels of inequity and social stratification?
The show will as much confirm prejudice as it will move people to action and thus teeters toward meaningless political neutrality
The first episode focuses primarily on the Cunninghams, whose children are following in the alcohol-driven, jailbird footsteps of their father; one son is facing sentencing for a racial attack, while the other is in trouble with dealers for snorting their coke. There’s also ex-smack-addict Marvin Baird, who’s keen to start a “normal life” with teenage girlfriend Dayna. Within one episode, we witness Marvin go from being “happy as Larry” when Dayna first moves in, to getting his house broken into, kneeing the pregnant Dayna in the stomach while drunk and ending up in jail for dealing diazepam.
What’s interesting about this kind of show is that we find two similar, well-known psychological effects in evidence. The first is the uncertainty principle that tarnishes all reality TV; the crew is clearly going to affect what they’re observing; this is reality TV’s primary flaw, one that is always being balanced against it’s primary strength: the inherent interest of watching real-life people in close-up. The second is the observer-expectancy effect, which states that people will take from something that which conforms to their pre-disposed bias. That’s to say, Conservatives will watch the show and exclaim ‘Look at these layabouts; mum’s lying bed smoking, son is dealing drugs…they’re just inherently bad’, while liberals might see the sociological motivations that the programme itself would apparently rather not point out, though they are implicit in everything we see.
The programme is happy to show the suffering, but not so forthright in explaining why it’s happening in the first place. This is common in our culture. What was wrong with Gordon Brown calling Gillian Duffy a bigot was not the accusation in itself (she was a bigot, after all), but that the reason she is a bigot is because of the inequalities in everything from education to economic structure that cause people to misdirect their anger; that she was trying to discuss these inequalities with a prime minister whose government has expanded them is what is objectionable about Brown’s crude comment. These same inequalities are what motivate the horrors of this show, but the makers, like Gordon Brown, would rather present the individual’s flaws without discussing the reasons for them. The show will as much confirm prejudice as it will move people to action and thus teeters toward meaningless political neutrality. Will the following episodes commit to a cause? It’s doubtful.
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