This is the shape of our modern media age: A community college dropout can earn millions playing a boozed-up Italian homegirl from New Jersey on one "reality TV" show, while a millionaire mogul can leverage millions more in free publicity for his "reality" show — which humiliates celebrities for charity — by pretending to consider a run for president.
And TV's biggest star rakes in millions by taking his twisted reality on the road, selling a front row seat to his own emotional breakdown.
But one night after troubled actor Charlie Sheen looses his live Torpedo of Truth tour on Tampa audiences Friday, you can turn on HBO and see a penetrating film about the making of a documentary that made all of this media-fed dysfunction possible.
Back in 1973, a shaggy filmmaker convinced California's Loud family to let him stick a camera in their midst for months, calling it a social experiment (Big Brother fans, sound familiar?)
HBO's Cinema Verite dramatizes the making of that project: a series credited with essentially creating the so-called "reality television" genre, the PBS documentary An American Family. (It debuts at 9 p.m. Saturday on HBO.)
And for star Diane Lane, the Oscar-nominated actor playing matriarch Pat Loud, the discovery by TV networks that audiences would watch an average family disintegrate on camera was like mixing chemicals to make sugar and instead creating cocaine.
"Let's say this started as an exercise in the educational television which had some nobility of purpose," said Lane. "What was discovered was an appetite, an almost reflexive, avid curiosity that viewers have for unscripted human drama. In some ways, a beast was created: a new creature called reality television."
For the Loud family, the consequences were devastating. The Louds' marriage essentially broke up on camera, as Pat learned of her husband Bill's many infidelities, thanks in part to the film's producer, Craig Gilbert. Audiences also got an up-close look at the Louds' openly gay son Lance, at a time when most Americans saw the phrase "gay pride" as just another way to describe an upbeat attitude.
Lane and her co-stars are spitting images for the people they play, including Golden Globe winner Tim Robbins as Bill and Sopranos alum James Gandolfini as beefy producer Gilbert. And just like today's reality TV pushers, Gandolfini's Gilbert persuades Pat Loud to allow filming of private moments by stressing the money spent by the network and the message she can send America.
But when the story actually aired, complete with ads playing up the family's dysfunction, armchair moralists descended with a vengeance.
"They were really just thrown to the wolves of every wanna-be sociologist with a typewriter," said Lane, who met the Louds just last week. "They were really lambs to the slaughter. Having 300 hours (of footage) narrowed down to 12; they needed an angle."
To its credit, Cinema Verite asks deeper questions: Did the project just force the Louds to face the reality of Bill's cheating and emotional absence, piercing the false veneer of '50s-style middle-class propriety many families struggled to maintain back then? Shouldn't a camera crew documenting the life of a family keep rolling when the family falls apart?
And its final message is an ominous one, with the Louds eventually compelled to embrace the media structure that victimized them so. Pat Loud became a literary agent, son Grant got a job working on Jeopardy, Lance became a writer for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and Bill hired an agent to handle his speaking gigs.
So if you're headed to the St. Pete Times Forum Friday to see Sheen, keep the example of the Louds in the back of your head.
They learned the hard way that TV gives nothing for free. And the price for so-called "reality" based entertainment just might be exalting those most willing to rip out their souls in public for our own amusement.
The tough question left unanswered: Once society accepts that as compelling, enjoyable entertainment, what does it say about us?
Lots of good TV coming this week
If you've been reading this space for even a little while, you know: I can bring the words when I want to.
But there's so much interesting TV coming this week, there's no space left. So I've devised my trademark One Sentence Reviews™ to help you plan your TV consumption this week. Check it out:
Gossip Girl, returns at 9 tonight on WTOG-Ch. 44: Is it worse for Billy Baldwin or Gossip Girl that the guy once known as the cute Baldwin brother is now stuck playing the ex-husband of a socialite facing jail over duping an innocent man into prison?
Black in Latin America, debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WEDU-Ch. 3: If you think black and white Americans are confused about race, check out Henry Louis Gates' artful examination of the historic frictions and cultures resulting from the legacy of more than 10 million African slaves brought to Latin America during the Middle Passage.
16 and Pregnant, returns at 10 p.m. Tuesday on MTV: Who needs All My Children when you've got Jordan, an identical twin and former model raised by her grandparents, now caught up in the fight between her sister and her baby daddy for her attention?
Talking Funny, debuts at 9 p.m. Friday on HBO: Watching Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. talk trash with each other about comedy and life for an hour is like the coolest hang you ever had with your funniest friends to the 10th power.