A WISE man - it was probably me - once said, ''Nobody ever turned on the TV so they could feel bad about themselves.'' TV has many attractions, but one of its greatest is the opportunity to reaffirm to yourself how superior you are to others. As a medium it prefers to kick down, not up, and this is the rationale behind the vast proliferation of reality shows: they comfort us, tell us things aren't so bad.
''My life may suck, but at least I'm not THEM!'' is the reaction your typical reality show is going for, whether ''them'' is a family of rednecks, a weeping fat guy on a treadmill, a pneumatic socialite, or Lara Bingle. Reality TV drags the upper classes down to our level, and drags our level down to the gutter in its quest to grant warm fuzzies to all who wish to feel validated in their own, non-humiliating life choices.
The Shire is, of course, no exception to this. There may be those involved with the production of the show who would like you to believe that they are merely filling an important and shamefully neglected niche by trying to satisfy the Australian public's burning desire for a deeper insight into the lives and loves of the residents of Sydney's southern beaches. But any such PR attempts are mere gossamer veils that fail to hide the truth: The Shire's entire raison d'etre is: ''No matter how dumb you are, there is no WAY you are as dumb as these people!'' The ads should just say, ''The Shire - you're smart!''
And it's worked - public reaction seems to indicate that The Shire makes its audience feel very, very clever indeed. You can't go anywhere on the internet without tripping over someone saying ''OMG these Shire bogans are sooooooo stupid'' or ''Hahaha this show is the dumbest ever'' or ''Shut up about your lips, you bimbo''. All fair comment, except, of course, for this: it's not real. I don't mean ''not real'' in the sense of ''oh you know reality TV shows have nothing to do with reality it's all rigged and as if in real life people have to live on desert islands and do jigsaw puzzles for food''. Not ''not real'' in the sense that Big Brother was not real, but ''not real'' in the sense that Mork and Mindy was not real. Not real in the sense that these are not real people living real lives, they are actors doing what a director tells them to do.
Moreover, it's clear that the prospect of playing themselves turns these actors into glassy-eyed spotlit wallabies of entertainment.
Purportedly, The Shire is an exercise in ''soft-script'' reality, the ''soft'' apparently referring to the consistency of the cardboard on which the actors' lines are written and held up behind the camera for them to read. I've seen more convincing line readings from five-year-olds in Easter bunny costumes. Crowing about the stupidity of these ''characters'' is about as realistic as acting smug because your career is going better than Homer Simpson's.
But a freak show is a freak show and at least it keeps both the cast and the audience off the streets. It just might be advisable for Shire fans to remember the iron rule of television - you're never as smart as you think are.