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Column: Tallafornia isn't real - but it is normalising bad behaviour

“Four men and three women were plucked from the desperate masses and replanted in a Tallaght semi, cultivated on Grey Goose and a terrifying amount of eggs, and kept at a near tropical temperature so as to render clothes completely unfeasible.”

Lisa McInerney

THE BIG MOVIE of the moment is The Hunger Games, in which a post-apocalyptic, empathically-challenged society derives guilt-free pleasure from watching young people destroy one another.

Coincidentally, the big TV series of the moment is Tallafornia, from which an empathetically-challenged society derives guilt-free pleasure by watching young people destroy one another.

The main difference is that the cast of The Hunger Games are much less likely to receive death threats.

Tallafornia is one of those augmented-reality shows that have been burrowing through the arse of the barrel ever since MTV first aired The Real World in 1992. Its title, bravely defined by TV3, means “the spread and influence of West Dublin culture… the people, the places, the hairspray, the buff bodies and the golden orange skintone”. Of course, because this is no more a real thing than the Ideas Fairy that whispers nightly in the ears of TV executives, not all of this first season’s cast were from West Dublin.

Four men and three women were plucked from the desperate masses and replanted in a Tallaght semi, cultivated on Grey Goose and a terrifying amount of eggs, and kept at a near tropical temperature so as to render clothes completely unfeasible. The lucky seven range from nineteen-year-old student Nikita to thirty-year-old stripper Jay, so one could argue they’re all old enough to know what they’re getting themselves into. In fact, one might be rather more worried about the mindset of the thirty-year-old inmate than of the nineteen-year-old. Isn’t he a bit old for such carry-on?

Such carry-on that had even David Norris reaching for the smelling salts. The senator described the show as “really seriously drink-sodden” with its cast “put in an atmosphere of continual drinking [and] encouraged to behave licentiously.” To which a TV3 spokesman sighed that “Tallafornia is exactly what is says on the tin. It’s just about fun and it’s an entertainment programme”. One of the show’s stars, the irrepressibly gormless Cormac Branagan, sneered “[Norris] would want to get a dose of reality. This is everyday life.”

Except it’s not. Nothing about Tallafornia, from the drinking, to the lapdances, to the wilful overspending on cheap eggs, related to everyday life. If it did, we wouldn’t have watched the bloody thing.

We watched Tallafornia because we wanted to laugh at the idiots

We didn’t watch Tallafornia because we’re bent double obsessing about socio-sexual mores in West Dublin. We watched Tallafornia because we wanted to laugh at the idiots. Like a scheduled audience at the chimpanzee enclosure, we crowded around the television on Friday nights to watch the cast fling poo at one another.

The biggest problem with Tallafornia’s success isn’t that we now have Cormac ‘Zap’ Branagan to deal with. We can laugh and poke fun all we like, but the fact remains that Norris has more than an incidental point. Broadcasting bad behaviour and rewarding its perpetrators with nationwide attention eventually normalises it, and some of the bad behaviour on Tallafornia was very bad indeed. And in another segue from reality, the truly bad behaviour wasn’t challenged.

None of the cast members came out of the experience smelling of roses, but the women, in particular, got a raw deal. Wild behaviour was encouraged from Tallafornia’s female cast – the girls were provided with all of the intimate close-ups, stripper poles and lingerie-clad whipped cream fights they could handle – yet any time one of the girls behaved in line with these super-sexed expectations, she was called a slut and sent to bed crying.

Kelly, whose crime was to fall for Dave despite having a boyfriend, was shunned, ridiculed and demeaned by each of her four male housemates. Nikita was bedded and unceremoniously ditched – repeatedly! – by Phil, who really needs to trademark The Creepiest Man Alive because no one has the right to the title that he does.

The fact that the women, who constantly referred to each other as “sisters”, wouldn’t stick up for one another in the face of such hateful harrying was depressing. Bullied incessantly, even if she couldn’t see it, Nikita wasted no time turning on Kelly as soon as the lads’ sneering spotlight swerved over to her friend.

The fantasy pop-culture woman who’s superficially classy, yet always sexually available, just doesn’t translate well into real life, because the kind of young man who craves her isn’t ready for her. The Tallafornia girls were groomed as ever-ready glamour models – all three spent more time in knickers and platforms than in anything else – but came a cropper under the insecurities of the men they gave their attention to. Creepy Phil lied to Nikita so she’d have sex with him and then mocked her for being stupid enough to fall for it. Angry Dave told Kelly she was dead to him after Phil imagined that she’d tried to kiss him.

The men often retreated into bromantic cuddles and back-slaps, convinced that they were born only to suffer the machinations of bikini models, oblivious to how they might have been architects of their own fallen angels. Even when a nameless woman fell inexplicably but briefly for Cormac’s meathead charms, Phil lost the run of himself and bubbled over into a hot mess of jealousy that was far more frightening than it was amusing.

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The never-ending slut-shaming was rather more unpalatable

Unpleasant stuff, for light entertainment. But unpleasantness can be just as escapist as sunshine and lollipops, so Tallafornia remained compulsive viewing. I could stomach the ludicrous preening of its stars, the silly clubwear, the proclamations of what a great party everyone’s having even when it’s obvious that the cast are languishing in a VIP area off an empty dancefloor.

The never-ending slut-shaming was rather more unpalatable. And in the same way Phil, Dave, Cormac and (to an admittedly lesser extent) Jay weren’t challenged on that, neither was TV3. Tallafornia was a commercial triumph.

With the success of America’s Jersey Shore, it’s unlikely that any of Tallafornia’s cast were unaware of the repercussions of appearing on a show designed to exhibit their most embarrassing defects; even the hapless Nikita, a girl so wet behind the ears she can’t spell coconut, can’t have failed to notice that she was cast as Tallafornia’s version of Jersey Shore’s über-buffoon Snooki. The most likely explanation is that the cast knew the risks, and they chose to hurtle headfirst into them.

Notoriety doesn’t always last forever, and the Shore’s Snooki has more than feathered her nest by allowing herself be paraded as the first world’s lowest lifeform. “It’s an experience”, said Tallafornia’s Kelly, on more than twelve occasions. And it certainly was. Doubtless she’s not bothered about the fallout, so why should Mr Norris be?

For good reason, as it turns out. If the Tallafornia cast were exploited, they were exploited for our amusement. The chances are that viewers who believe Tallafornia is exploitation television will not blame themselves for their part in this glorious mess. TV3 saw a gap in the market and they filled it, and had no shortage of participants, locales, or ridiculous definitions made up on the hoof to allow them to do so. Responding to Senator Norris’ criticism, a TV3 spokesman said “It is what it is. It’s a fun programme”.

And it is. Fun for us. Whether we’re giggling along or making gagging gestures from behind the couch, a glut of us tuned in, and made Tallafornia a very big hit.

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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Lisa McInerney

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