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Bristol Palin performs on "Dancing with the Stars" in 2010. (Adam Larkey/AP)
Bristol Palin performs on "Dancing with the Stars" in 2010. (Adam Larkey/AP)

John Doyle: Television

The path to fame: It's Bristol Palin, just being herself Add to ...

The news that Bristol Palin is to star in a new reality TV series caused barely a ripple. There was an inevitability to it.

According to Deadline Hollywood, the series, for the Bio Channel, "follows single mom Bristol Palin's move from Alaska to Los Angeles with her son, Tripp, to work at a small charity in need while living with her good friends Chris and Kyle Massey." Her "good friends" are her Dancing with the Stars co-star, actor Kyle Massey, and his brother. It's a new reality-TV project directly linked to a previous one. And it features someone known as the daughter of a major political figure.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump's possible political candidacy wobbles along. A guy whose continuing visibility is anchored in reality series The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice is aiming for big-time political credibility.

The blending of reality TV and politics goes on and on. Recently, on Fox News, host Martha MacCallum introduced an interview with Trump, on political issues, by saying, "When you look over the last couple of Sundays, you've kind of had back-to-back appearances with President Obama. You had the announcement of Osama bin Laden, the capture and kill mission, and that pre-empted your show. And then this weekend, you had 60 Minutes right up against your big episode of Celebrity Apprentice. You guys have kind of been in each other's grills a bit the past couple of Sundays."

As if, you know, the U.S. President's appearances to announce and then discuss the killing of Osama bin Laden were the exact equivalent of a reality-TV series featuring has-been actors and sports stars pretending to impress Donald Trump.

What's going on here? You've heard of moral equivalence - the equating of conflicting moral transgressions - perhaps? Well, what we've got in the United States right now is fame equivalence. The President is just a guy on TV, the equal of another guy jabbering on TV. The other guy jabbering on TV is therefore entitled to challenge the President and berate him on equal terms.

Reality TV has become a cultural imperative in the U.S. and, as such, it is an emanation of a society that believes itself to be egalitarian - all anyone has to do is aspire to a certain status and that status can be obtained. And, over the past decade, a major aspirational element of the culture has become reality-TV fame. An entire public consciousness has been formed, rooted in the principle that the truthfulness of ordinary experience is enough to gain prominence if you have that truthfulness documented. And that not just fame, but credibility, is achieved by being yourself on TV. The wit and wisdom of you, just being yourself, is elevated to all-encompassing importance by being on TV.

There are two things that are notable in this development.

First, reality TV is not real, of course. As a genre, it follows specific templates, story arcs and rigid conventions. Thus, Bristol Palin will no doubt emerge as a genuine, caring single mother whose struggle to deal with parenthood and the intrusions that come with being Sarah Palin's daughter make her a better person. Not the brat that her mom's political enemies, and some in the media, have portrayed her.

The second thing is rich in irony in the case of Palin and Trump. The idea that mass popularity in pop culture is more truly valid than obscurity and excellence was, once upon a time, an essentially left-wing idea. The idea is that the masses are correct and the highbrow is inauthentic. What has happened with the rise of reality TV is that it has become perfectly acceptable not to aspire to be excellent, to be part of an elite group, but to just be yourself.

There has been some speculation that the arrival of a Bristol Palin reality show means that Sarah Palin won't run for the Republican presidential nomination. It is based on the idea that Sarah Palin's seriousness - such as it is - might be undermined by the show. Nothing could be further from the truth of the fame game in the U.S. right now. If anything, the Palin brand is bolstered by Bristol's upcoming series.


The Cupcake Girls (W, 9 p.m.) is one of those reality shows that is not what it seems. The owners of a small cupcake empire in Vancouver, Lori Joyce and Heather White, don't cook and it's not about the cupcakes. It's about the business. It's about branding and marketing. For all the low-level soap-opera antics that occur at regular intervals, the show is selling viewers and the marketplace on the idea that this company is successful and ready to expand. In Wednesday night's episodes - there's another one at 9:30 p.m. - the business ladies are in Toronto finding locations for the first of their out-of-B.C. Cupcakes stores, something they did as they were in town for the Gemini Awards. Invest now!

Check local listings.

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