Network programming over the last five years has been a systematic rebuttal of T.S. Eliot’s classic dictum that “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” It turns out, upon further review, that humankind can bear reality seven nights a week, on about 35 different channels. We like it in every possible flavor, from the dramatic (Survivor) to the moronic (Joe Millionaire) to the horribly offensive (The Swan). Reality TV is not even a guilty pleasure anymore. It’s as if our entire culture has reached the halfway point in a gigantic bag of Cheetos and just collectively decided to go ahead and finish it off.
A couple of years ago, in an act of countercultural rebellion, I renounced reality television forever. I think it was in silent protest of The Anna Nicole Smith Show, which struck me as a tipping point: The genre had become a Gordian knot of social postures—camp, irony, sincerity, acting, self-parody, and self-promotion. I couldn’t even begin to untangle it, so I gave up, and I’ve managed to abstain from any regular viewing ever since (after, of course, having watched every single episode of Anna Nicole).
This summer, though, reality lured me back—not by reaching some new level of ironic self-regard, but through an appeal to my most primal emotion: my hatred of teenagers. Brat Camp documented the hormone-saturated plight of nine worse-than-average teens (their crimes ran from drugs to ADHD to the attempted murder of a twin brother) as they griped their way through a wilderness self-improvement program called SageWalk.
Last night, the series ended its surprisingly popular summer-long run with one final tantrum. Now that it’s over, we can say definitively that it was awful to the very end: slow, repetitive, full of paint-by-numbers pop-psychology and manufactured epiphanies. Brat Camp was also (as all the critics have pointed out) ethically dubious, since it depended entirely on the exploitation of clueless and seriously troubled minors—a sort of When Animals Attack of human development. And yet I couldn’t stop watching; its opening episode was the most riveting television I’ve seen in years. (It strikes me as a little parable of contemporary American culture that I was actually disappointed when Brat Camp was canceled one week to make way for a retrospective on the career of Peter Jennings.) Brat Camp was like porn for people who hate teenagers—which is probably the largest target audience possible, since it includes everyone in the world, even (and especially) teenagers.
Though I’m normally a pretty empathetic person, I hate teenagers with incredible fervor. It’s nothing personal: I hate them categorically, like I hate injustice. I hate the way they roam around in packs, wearing floppy, Technicolor clothes, sculpting their marginal facial hair, slapping and tripping each other, shouting strings of banal obscenities as if they were delivering the “Gettysburg Address.” I hate the way they express personal inadequacy through car accessories and vandalism. I even hate the word “teens,” which sounds like some kind of infectious skin fungus. When a child I love becomes a teenager, my love for him goes into escrow for seven years. I know that there are biological excuses for their behavior—their amygdalae (the brain’s anger and fear center) are ballooning, their exploding sexualities have only secret and shameful outlets—but that doesn’t change my instinctive revulsion any more than knowing that sharks eat people because they need the protein. The cast of Brat Camp—a tribe of self-absorbed, violent, coke-dabbling, pimply rage-aholics—isn’t an anomaly: It is the fullest logical expression of the genus teen, the platonic ideal of the species.
On Brat Camp,the teenage animal is frustrated at every turn. SageWalk is the most effective engine of teen torture ever devised, as carefully calibrated as any instrument of the Spanish Inquisition. Even its name—a cutesy portmanteau of wisdom, herbs, and slow movement—seems engineered to offend the teenage sensibility. It’s a perfect blend of physical hardship—hiking for hours through blizzards, eating only boiled oats—and psychological torment. The camp is relentlessly uncool. The kids all have to wear matching hats, and instead of drill sergeants barking merciless orders (an authoritative yin that screams out for a rebellious yang), the camp is run by a squadron of unflappably gentle guidance counselors who call each other by “earth names”: Glacier, Mother Raven, Little Bear. They answer every outburst of teen rage with respectful, hushed dialogue about feelings. I love it all exactly as much as the teenagers hate it, which is very much.
Critics have unanimously panned Brat Camp, usually based on superego-driven misreadings; its fundamental appeal is pure id. No matter how much the show tried to cover its tracks with feel-good narration and solemn music, we watched it for the breakdowns, not the breakthroughs. The campers’ tantrums were jarring and authentic, exquisitely hateable, while their moments of clarity tended to sound like a word salad cribbed from self-help books: They proactively opened doors, cleared lines of communication, broke down walls, surmounted obstacles, and maximized potentials ad nauseam. My favorite line from the finale came when the fatherless and intermittently likable hothead Frank was reunited with his mom, who immediately broke into rite-of-passage talk: “You’ve turned into a man.” To which he responded, “No, it’s just from not shaving.”
Most of the show’s awkwardness came from the unbridgeable chasm between the noble ambitions of SageWalk—to administer emergency CPR to flat-lining young lives—and the network’s pursuit of a very healthy (judging from the length and frequency of the commercial breaks) bottom line. In fact, the soul of the show was always and only the delicious spectacle of teens denied any outlet for their instinctive awfulness. This is why the real star of Brat Camp was the worst brat of them all: Jada, a pathologically manipulative drama queen who never even came close to buying into the program.While the others made actual progress, became less teenlike, and occasionally even crossed over into likableness, Jada kept lying about the most obvious things and then shrieking and flinging herself around in incredibly entertaining despair. Her impending hissy fits were often promised before commercial breaks. The show’s ultimate tragedy was that she graduated in the end; I had fantasies of her being left to wander in the wilderness forever.
The show’s real finale aired off-camera earlier this month, when two Brat Camp graduates were arrested for impeccably teenage crimes. Isaiah, an angry punk with two-tone hair, allegedly painted racist slurs and a swastika on a local preschool teacher’s lawn. Not to be outdone, Jada almost killed a family of seven with a speedboat. Once again, reality has become almost unwatchably complex: The crimes came just in time to serve as unofficial advertisements for the season’s final episode.