Maybe the telltale moment came when, last month, MTV’s reliably entertaining reality contest America’s Best Dance Crew trotted out a crew that had failed to make the show in all four of the previous seasons. Or maybe it was back in 2007, during American Idol Season Six, when the grating Blake Lewis nearly beat-boxed his way to the championship. (Come to think of it, no one’s too blown away by this season’s Idols.) But at some point in recent reality-TV history, a dark and troubling question arose: Is America running out of talent?
The concept of “peak oil” posits that once the rate of petroleum extraction exceeds the rate of discovery, global oil production will decline, precipitating disaster. I hereby propose the parallel concept of “peak talent.” Given the reasonable premise that there’s a finite number of people who can sing, dance, cook, design clothes, or do whatever it is they do on America’s Got Talent (yodeling?)—we must recognize that we’ve been extracting, or “discovering,” these people at an unsustainable rate. And we may be running out.
Consider America’s Best Dance Crew. This season, not only did we see the crew of former also-rans, but another crew featured members who’d been bounced in Season One, while yet another has been imported from—gasp—Canada. Meanwhile, on American Idol, the producers already rejiggered the rules to deal with depleted talent reserves. First they loosened the age restrictions. Then, after a dismal 2007 season—which featured not only the Bon Jovi–slaughtering Lewis but Sanjaya—they opened the field to singer-songwriters. Having nearly exhausted our nation’s store of precious pop belters, Idol is now burning through all the halfway-decent guitar strummers. But then what? Auto-Tune Idol?
On top of that, you’ve got Top Chef trawling for top chefs, Project Runway and Launch My Line jostling for (hopefully lunatic) designers, and So You Think You Can Dance rummaging for people who both (a) think they can dance and (b) are correct. No wonder reality talent shows have splintered into ever-more-specialized slivers, bringing us the best hair stylists (Shear Genius), singing duos (Can You Duet?), drag queens (RuPaul’s Drag Race), or pastry chefs (Ace of Cakes).
Ironically, the reality genre was supposed to be the ultimate talent-buster. No more pesky, temperamental actors; all you needed was a dozen eager idiots willing to live on an island or eat a horse’s rectum on TV. But then we decided we’d rather watch people who are actually good at something than people who will simply do anything. Initially we feared that reality TV would flourish by feeding our basest appetites. Instead, for once, we may be victims of our own good taste.
That’s because, as we run out of talent, we’re forced to turn back to a more abundant resource: the jackass. Witness the popularity of Jersey Shore. So consider this a wake-up call to our spotlight-hungry youth: Get off the tanning bed and back to practicing your karaoke, your balsamic reductions, or your sequin-stitching. We need your talent, and you need our attention. But better an audience that’s applauding your ability than one that’s just laughing at you.