Film and TV

A Week When I Yearn For the Unreality of My Favorite Reality TV Show

This week of compelling events in the real world here in Dallas has kept me away from a world I confess I sometimes prefer, the one depicted on a Bravo TV reality show called Southern Charm, set in Charleston, South Carolina. I feel guilty about it, but all week long I have wanted to take a few hours out for some totally unreal reality TV binge watching.

I’m not trying to persuade you to watch Southern Charm. It definitely is an acquired taste, kind of on a level with strong cheese. Southern Charm is an utterly improbable show about people who are, unfortunately, quite probable.

So why do I need it this week? I need a dose of Southern Charm because it is so far removed from the jarring abstractions of politics and social causes, buried instead nose-deep in the day-to-day of human existence, the place where we actually live.

In a week like this, it’s hard to remember that we don’t live in politics. We live in a world of what those in the business of high drama and big news would call trivia — deeply compelling, profoundly challenging, grippingly important trivia. Welcome home.

First of all, the characters on Southern Charm are all like cartoon characters for me — comfortingly removed from my own reality — because almost all of them are young, good-looking and rich. In other words, I see them on TV but not in the mirror.

The plot. What can I tell you about the plot? It’s kind of about whether or not T-Rav is ever going to marry Kathryn, and he should, really, by the way, because they’ve had two babies together already, but, also, what about Shep? I mean is he ever going to settle down, or will he just keep going to bed with really pretty women and being all rich and a lightweight and stuff? But I don’t know if he’s really a lightweight, because he’s the one who’s always telling Craig to get real, which Craig really needs to do, by the way, because he’s the only one on the show who isn’t rich, really.

Got it?

T-Rav is a real person, Thomas Ravenel, scion of a very old Huguenot family in Charleston after whom bridges and streets are named. He has a colorful and controversial political career behind him — very solidly behind, I think.

The show, for some reason, practices an odd little deception about Ravenel, portraying him as a spoiled polo-playing wastrel of inherited wealth, when I think, based on some light Googling I have done about him, he is actually self-made based on a very successful career in real estate. Who knows why they portray him the way they do? Maybe his self-made success would unbalance the dramatic unities.

The show is set in Charleston, a beautiful city my wife and I have come to know since our son moved there a few years ago. It is wonderfully shot and produced, effectively conveying Charleston’s unique charm in every exterior shot.

So here’s the surprise for me. Of all the characters in the show I should like the least, the two I find most compelling and sympathetic are T-Rav, in spite of the fact that he won’t marry Kathryn, and Kathryn, who keeps having babies with him anyway.

Why? Well, it is, after all, a TV show. Maybe I like those two because they are portrayed well by the directors and producers of the series. But I think it’s something else, as well.

I think I care about those two because their narrative best expresses the themes of being in love, out of love, rejoicing in babies, worrying about babies, personal responsibility and irresponsibility, being glad, being sad, included, excluded, alone, together, callous, vulnerable. That’s what my own life has really been about. Not politics.

Hey, my life hasn’t been about the weather, either, but that doesn’t mean the weather isn’t out there. I am not saying politics and social causes are unimportant. If they were, I’d be out of a job.

Politics and social issues have ripped Dallas' heart wide open in the last week, literally spilling blood on the streets. Every day that goes by, the lives of the residents of Dallas are driven and determined by social and political issues of inequity and inequality, greed and despair, racism and tolerance.

Charleston, as we know, was shredded by a vicious racial slaughter almost exactly a year before we were. Trying to dismiss or trivialize the powerful forces of politics and race would be … well, sorry, but the word that leaps to mind is stupid. Life is a hungry bear. Don’t turn your back on it.

But even when that bear growls at me — maybe especially when it growls at me — I need to remind myself that the true heart of life is still private and personal. Life has less to do with the bear than with whether or not the T-Ravs in all our worlds are ever going to do right by the Kathryns and what about those babies when they grow up? And who says Shep can’t be a player?

The lives on Southern Charm are so wealthy — and, by the way, so white — that I could see them as completely divorced from my own urban diverse middle class universe. Maybe I could dismiss those lives as superficial or even stupid. But I am struck more often by recognition, by the unmistakable realization that the lives on Southern Charm are really just like my life, just like the lives of the very poorest people in my own city and the very richest. When you trim away the trappings of class, life is at home and life is the deeply personal. It’s the same for us all.

OK, here’s another possibility: Maybe I just need some big complicated over-thought theory to allow myself to watch a crappy reality TV show. Maybe the issues in my own life are easier to take when acted out by pretty young rich people. Whatever.

By the way, my son and his fiancée, who live in Charleston and know some of the characters on the show, just roll their eyes and change the subject when we bring it up (my wife is addicted, too). I think they feel about it the way I feel about Real Housewives of Dallas. I already know a lot of real housewives in Dallas, thank you. I’m fine on that.

But after a week like this, I really need a dose of the distance that fantasy provides in order to bring myself back to reality. Charleston just happens to be about the right distance — 1,088.5 miles on Interstate 20, according to Google. That's about the amount of buffer I need right now.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze