The ‘Loser Edit’ That Awaits Us All
By Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Magazine
's 'First Words' Column - Mar. 3, 2015
If you have ever watched a reality TV show and said, “He’s going home tonight,” you know what the “loser edit” is. I imagine it started as a matter of practicality. If you have 20 contestants, they can’t all receive equal airtime. When an obscure character gets the heave-ho, the producers have to cobble together a coherent story line. Intersperse the snippets across the hour, and we can identify sins and recognizable human frailty that need to be punished. Anyone tuning in for the first time catches up quickly. The loser edit is not just the narrative arc of a contestant about to be chopped, or voted off the island, whatever the catchphrase. It is the plausible argument of failure.
The concept first bubbled up out of the pop-cultural ether when competitive reality shows hit upon their formula, in the form of “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.” TV enthusiasts — part fan, part Roland Barthes with a TiVo — congregated on online message boards like Television Without Pity, creating a new slang with which to dis and deconstruct their favorites.
Fifteen years later, the critical language used to carve up the phonies, saints and sad-sack wannabes of reality shows has migrated, and the loser edit has become a limber metaphor for exploring our own real-world failures. Fate doles out ideas for subplots — fire her, dump him, all species of mortification — and we eagerly run with them, cutting loser narratives for friends and enemies, the people we have demoted to the status of mere character. Everybody’s setbacks or degradations have been foreshadowed if we look hard enough at the old tape. We arrange the sequences, borrowing from cultural narratives of disgrace, sifting through the available footage with a bit of hindsight — and in turn, we endure our own loser edits when we stumble.
With so many media bloggers staggering under daily content quotas, rooting through the digital-content vaults, we can now assemble the montage of public shame more quickly than ever. A few weeks ago, NBC told Brian Williams to pack his knives and go. Cue the supercut of Williams spinning different accounts of dangerous helicopter rides in Iraq, the gradual embellishments creeping in over the years. Cue Williams in a Hurricane Katrina documentary telling us how he heard that a man committed suicide in the Superdome, juxtaposed with an interview years later in which he says he “watched” that suicide actually happen. How could we have missed it?
It was inevitable that Bill Cosby would receive a thorough loser edit after his army of accusers began stepping forward. There were too many sleuths nosing around for clues, downloading ancient standup routines, tapping search words into digital scans of out-of-print books: “cocktail hour,” “consent,” “things America’s favorite dad said that are creepy in retrospect.” Is he really joking about dosing women with Spanish fly on a 1969 comedy album? On a talk show in 1991? It was right in front of us all along. Embed the clip, tweet it out. This Cosby edit is on VHS, recorded over the videotape of your childhood illusions, and it cannot be undone. If that can be erased, what else?
How stupid of them to leave all that incriminating evidence out there.
The footage of your loser edit is out there as well, waiting. Taken from the surveillance camera of the gas station where you bought a lottery ticket like a chump. From the A.T.M. that recorded you taking out money for the romantic evening that went bust. From inside the black domes on the ceiling of the train station, the lenses that captured your slow walk up the platform stairs after the doomed excursion. From all the cameras on all the street corners, entryways and strangers’ cellphones, building the digital dossier of your days. Maybe we can’t clearly make out your face in every shot, but everyone knows it’s you. We know you like to slump. Our entire lives as B-roll, shot and stored away to be recut and reviewed at a moment’s notice when the plot changes: the divorce, the layoff, the lawsuit. Any time the producers decide to raise the stakes.
Occasionally, on a “Top Chef” or a “Project Runway,” a contestant suffers a monstrous loser edit, one that lasts a whole season. The unlucky contestant isn’t sent home at the end of the night, but is instead doomed to perform personality deficits episode after episode. The supporting player trapped first by an aspect of himself or herself, and then by editors who won’t let him or her escape the casting. We need a goat.
Perhaps you have a personal acquaintance with this phenomenon, slogging through months and months of your own terrible editing. The audience takes in the spectacle, pressing pause for a quick trip to the kitchen so they won’t miss a second of your humiliation: This is destination television. Your co-workers rewind your loser’s reel, speculating over why you didn’t get that promotion, where it all started to go wrong. If you ask me, it goes back to the Peterson account. Your ex’s buddies pass the potato chips and barely pay attention, texting pals, making jokes on Twitter — they knew before the first commercial break that you were being voted off the island. Your friends and family, who of course love you very much, are tuning in, even though they know all of your story lines by heart. They’ve seen this episode before. There he goes again.
When life gets the drop on us, we have to submit to the framing. We leave too many traces of our failures, too much material for a ruthless editor to work with. As if we didn’t already have one in our heads — cutting and splicing a lifetime of bad decisions and bonehead moves into an existential montage of boobery:
“Why did I say that?”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Why do I keep falling for that?”
Memory is the most malicious cutter of all, preserving, recasting, panning in slow motion across the awful bits so that we retain every detail.
Can we escape our editing? In their wisdom, the philosopher-consumers of Television Without Pity also identified the loser edit’s opposite number and antiparticle: the winner edit. If there’s a loser edit, there has to be a winner edit. Makes sense. Over the course of a season, the inevitable winner thrives. He or she will suffer some setbacks for drama and suspense, sure, but the groundwork for victory is established challenge by challenge, week by week. It has been written, by fate or the producers, pick your deity. It cannot be reversed.
You know the golden boys and girls who sail through life without care, recipients of an enviable winner edit that lasts season after season. Untouchable. Everyone else has to do it by himself or herself, assembling our edits through a thousand compulsive Facebook tweaks, endless calibrations of Twitter personas, Instagram posts filtered of all disturbance. Should I wear glasses in my profile pic? How do I express solidarity with the freedom fighters? The exaggerations and elisions on your dating profile, and the ridiculous yet oddly calming amount of time you spent choosing the proper font for your résumé. I hear employers associate Calibri with diligence and follow-through. Marshal the flattering anecdotes, string them together into a leitmotif of confidence and sophistication. Cut when this scene establishes the perfect pitch of self-*deprecation, cut before everyone can see your humility for the false modesty it is.
Do you think it’s working? Did you get away with it today?
We give ourselves loser edits and winner edits all the time, to clasp meaning onto experience. Sometimes you render both kinds of edits in the same day, maybe even the same afternoon, deleting certain scenes from your memory, fooling with the contrast, as reality presses on you and directs your perceptions. Pull it off, and maybe you’ll make it to bedtime. Why do you think they call it “Survivor”?
Splice and snip. The contradictory evidence falls to the cutting-room floor, and we assert order, shape a narrative, any narrative, out of the chaos. Whether you tend to give yourself a loser edit to feed that goblin part of your psyche or you fancy the winner’s edit for the camouflage and safety it provides, it’s better than having no arc at all. If we’re going down, let us at least be a protagonist, have a story line, not be just one of those miserable players in the background. A cameo’s stand-in. The loser edit, with all its savage cuts, is confirmation that you exist. The winner edit, even in its artifice, is a gesture toward optimism, the expectation of rewards waiting for that better self. Whenever he or she shows up.
Take the footage you need. Burn the rest.