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For better and worse, VTV provides something many sitcoms and dramas don't. Surprises, for instance. "It's like a baseball game," says Paul Romer, the Dutch executive producer and creator of Big Brother. "Even when the game isn't interesting, you wait and stay because the next hit could be a home run." True, arguments over who's hogging the rat meat are probably not what Aristotle had in mind when conceiving the Poetics. And producers can contrive conflict, such as Survivor's races and bug-eating contests, not to mention its million-dollar endgame. (Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, author of The Argument Culture, says this "shows that the programmers don't think human interaction itself is dramatic.") But Survivor functions as drama, if not art, because we can map its petty squabbles and triumphs on our own lives. Those mismatched 16, working together, then looking out for No. 1, could be your co-workers, your family.
For a celebrity-sated audience, there's also a refreshing populism in the casting; here are people that you rarely see on TV: mixed-race characters; the devout; chubby gay men over 30. In fact, The Real World's diversity may now be cliche--gay guy, meet the Asian girl; white beatnik, meet the alcoholic. (This year's gay guy, before coming out to his housemates, coyly announced he had "a secret," and regular viewers who had witnessed previous coming outs knew in a split second what it would be. If you use that line by the show's ninth season, you'd better have a severed head in your luggage.) But that casting has also proved genuinely worthwhile. Pedro Zamora explicitly used his stint on the series' third season to raise awareness of AIDS, which claimed his life shortly after the show aired. "He was the only one doing the show for truly altruistic reasons," says castmate Judd Winick, 30.
VTV stars offer a feeling of accessibility that traditional TV's Flockharts and Schwimmers, with their phalanxes of publicists and flunkies, don't. You feel you're seeing, if not the true person, at least a less mediated version. (The charming gent on the island could be a complete jerk at home, but so could your charming dentist.) This puts these fame-game amateurs in the awkward position of having their very souls judged in public. "People stop me in the street and say, 'I really related to your character,'" says Real World vet Kevin Powell, 33. "I wasn't a character. That was me." And these noncelebrity celebrities tend to be bite-size stars, celebrity snacks whom the public down in one gulp. Survivor spins off a new star every week as the contestants are voted off; each makes a weeklong round of the press--all to stoke the ratings of the bastards who eighty-sixed them!--and then flames out. "I'm so tired," Stillman said the day after her expulsion aired. "I've done about 40 interviews so far."