In "The Money Shot," Laura Grindstaff approaches a pop-culture subject with a scholarly mind, which is both the book's strength and weakness. In reporting on how TV talkshows are assembled, Grindstaff -- a sociology prof at UC Davis -- offers an outsider's view that is insightful.

In “The Money Shot,” Laura Grindstaff approaches a pop-culture subject with a scholarly mind, which is both the book’s strength and weakness. In reporting on how TV talkshows are assembled, Grindstaff — a sociology prof at UC Davis — offers an outsider’s view that is insightful. But the professor writes, for example, that trash talkshows “give ordinary people the opportunity to contribute to their own narrativization (albeit in a highly circumscribed and limited manner).” Uh-huh. This ain’t the definitive work on the subject, but it’s a worthwhile addition.

The book’s title comes from a term in adult films, with the author explaining that a talkshow’s money shot is the moment when “joy, sorrow, rage or remorse (is) expressed in visible, bodily terms.” In other words, when the guest freaks out, bursts into tears or throws a chair.

She doesn’t delve into celebrity chatshows (“Tonight,” et al.), but focuses on the programs (mostly syndicated) ranging from “Montel Williams” to “Leeza.” Her emphasis is on the confrontational/”issue” episodes; there’s no mention of makeover segs, reunion shows, or those “I was tormented in school for being ugly but look at me now!” offerings.

Readers are advised to skip the book’s snoozy first chapter, which is basically a 26-page justification for tackling such a declasse subject. The bulk of the book consists of interviews with staffers and guests (including “experts” used on-camera by various talkers).

Those who expect a searing expose will be disappointed. Grindstaff presents a generally non-judgmental view as she relates how producers prep guests for the money shots. And she pretty much dismisses the notion that most of these guests are fake.

In the terrific final chapter, titled “Trash, Class, and Cultural Hierarchy,” Grindstaff offers her own money shot. In her examination of what talkshows can teach us about mass media and our culture, the author provides a sharp overview about the nature of these shows and reactions from the public and the media.

She says the media distinguish between “classy” shows (e.g., “Oprah”) and “trashy” ones (“Jerry Springer”), but she finds little difference, pointing out they all have much in common with TV news in general. Grindstaff persuasively argues that all “reality” programs manipulate facts and sound bites, and tap into a limited demographic for guests (she cites a 1989 study of “Nightline” in which 90% of guests were men, and 83% white).

“Trashy” talkers are mocked for exploiting people, but Grindstaff points out that these guests are eager to be heard; the fact is, they are too poor, homely and uneducated to be of interest to other media outlets (and she raises the question whether the charge of “exploitation” is merely condescension).

Aside from her occasional flights into high-falutin’ sociology-speak (“critical pedagogies of liberation necessarily embrace experience…”), the book’s other problem is her use of fictitious names for nearly everyone quoted.

She spent 15 months as an intern/production assistant on two shows that she demurely refers to as “Randy” and “Diana.” Dozens of talkshow employees and guests are identified only by their first name. That anonymity may have led to more openness during the interviews, but it keeps the subjects at arm’s length from the reader, who will frequently be confused: Wait, was Sonny the bigamist or the woman with the trashy daughter?

The effect is like watching a documentary in which all the faces are pixillated to keep the audience from identifying the principals.

At one point, Grindstaff says that TV viewers make a distinction between shows like “Diana” and “Randy.” But how can we tell if she’s right, when we don’t even know who Diana and Randy are?

The Money Shot Trash, Class and The Making of Talk Shows

U. Chicago Press, 324 pgs., $20

Production

By Laura Grindstaff

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