First came the reality shows featuring impossibly attractive people in hothouse isolation (The Real World). Then there were those that showed ordinary people competing for supremacy in artificially constructed situations (Survivor, Fear Factor). Over the last few years, there’s been a fad for Bachelor- type shows that place “real” people of varying levels of gorgeousness in the inherently suspenseful (if banal) context of romantic courtship. But with A&E’s new series Airline (Mondays, 10 p.m. ET), reality television has finally reached degree zero. Apparently the lives of Americans are so empty, our companions such mirthless drones, that we would rather watch random homely people milling aimlessly around a place no one wants to be: the airport. Airline is a reality show without auditions, objectives, or rules; its only subject matter is everyday tedium, its only culling process the cutting-room floor. What’s next on the reality-TV drafting board: I’m on Hold, You’re on Hold? Loan-Office Lobbycam?
From the opening bars of the show’s theme song, a jazzed-up version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver (a dubious choice, given that Denver died in a plane crash), there’s something about Airline that’s just slightly off. Consider the blurb chosen for the pre-show teaser: “The critics are flying high over Airline!” exults a voice-over before going on to note that, according to the Denver Post, the series “sticks out from the mid-winter lineup like a barf bag on a bumpy flight.” Well, somebody’s flying high if they think that’s a good tagline.
Airline’s biggest problem is its lack of momentum, which comes as no surprise, since this is a show about stasis: people stranded in airports because of inclement weather, dumb luck, or their own poor choices. Much of the conflict, such as it is, arises from some version of those awkward, I’m-going-to-have-to-ask-you-to-leave-sir moments that all of us have furtively witnessed in public places. There’s Michael, an apparently homeless traveler who is delicately informed that his body odor is too bad for him to get on a plane (and provided with deodorant and a change of clothes by a sweetly mortified employee). Or John, an affable COS—that’s Customer of Size—who’s required to buy two tickets to accommodate his extra bulk. Such humiliations and inconveniences are, indeed, the bane of the long-distance traveler, but hardly the stuff of drama. In a typical bit of voice-over, the narrator intones, “Val faces a dilemma: How does she keep the customer satisfied, but still follow the regulations of the airline?” Roll over, Sophocles.
Airline,which focuses exclusively on the goings-on at the Southwest Airlines terminals at LAX and Chicago’s Midway Airport,is based on a British reality show about that country’s analogous low-cost carrier, EasyJet, which has, mystifyingly, kept audiences captivated for six seasons. Both network and airline attest that no money changed hands to secure the rights to the footage, but Southwest freely admits that it saw the opportunity as “18 hours of free publicity.” Whether because of judicious editing or the employees’ awareness of the camera, there’s no question that, unlike the malodorous Michael, Southwest comes off smelling like a rose. In confrontation after confrontation, belligerent, buck-passing customers (like the woman who misses her own plane, then hangs around all day whining at the airline’s incompetence) hassle forbearing, good-humored agents. In fact, the customers are so clearly the villains of the show that if you come away with any lesson in mind, it’s “Jeez, I should really be nicer to people at the airport.”
Given that FAA regulations preclude the filming of any real security breaches or moments of actual danger, there are, let’s face it, a limited number of things that can happenin airports. Only four episodes into the season, no fewer than three storylines have already been repeated in slightly varying formats: an inebriated passenger is denied boarding until he or she sobers up; parents are required to prove that their child is two or younger before bringing the youngster aboard for free; a crowd of passengers becomes furious that the airline can’t book them all free rooms after an act-of-God snafu.
In those rare moments that the show leaves the claustrophobic sterility of the airport (for example, a brief glimpse of Sam, a gay flight attendant, hitting a jackpot at the Vegas slots), we’re afforded access into the behind-the-scenes workings of airline culture, a fascinating world that (unlike airport waiting rooms) few of us have ever seen. I’d like more of the bonding rituals of flight attendants onboard or a whole day with Colleen, the unflappably cheery customer service manager at Midway whose preternatural patience through the ordeal of the 2003 blackout—the subject of last night’s episode—was like an inspirational homily to anyone who’s ever almost lost it on the job.
The genre Airline most often evokes—if it can be considered a genre—is the customer-service training video, one of those in-house productions shown to new hires at all-day seminars in a carpeted basement room. As a nominee in the training-video Oscars, it would probably sweep the whole thing. But as reality programming, Airline’s stakes are too low—will Mr. and Mrs. Chen make their connecting flight to Taipei?—to keep anyone not stuck in an airport glued to their seat.