Observations from the Road (House)

Road House (1989)  view trailer

Forget whether it’s good or bad, high art or low brow, or even if you’ve only seen snippets as you browse the cable dial. Essentially the core of the story and it’s main character Dalton, as performed by Patrick Swayze, have been co-opted by contemporary “reality” television shows and is being used over and over again with a different pseudo-celebrity in slightly varied situations.

The Expert Speaks…

In this classic scene, we see what makes up most of the cultural cliché and sets up the rest of the material.

It has become textbook and here’s how it works… An expert is recruited by an individual who’s business is failing, or at least requires restructuring to survive. Said expert, though initially appearing either too small, too female, or too brash, then observes the business in its normal routine of operation. Usually, this is slightly covert and low pressure or at least presented as such. After witnessing first hand the shortcomings of the staff and the owner, the expert gives their speech and introduction where, with mild emotion, they curtly state how things will change. Or, as Dalton says, “It’s either my way or the highway”. A boring threat, but still a threat nonetheless. As the new plan is put in place, some have difficulties while others excel. Some are verbally destroyed while others well with emotion and are praised. These highs and lows proceed until the expert leaves after having giving those who remain the tools to carrying on.

This isn’t necessarily a narrative canon crafted solely by Road House, but it has been an example so culturally absorbed that it stands out as a prime reference. Sure, movies involving military enlisted and drill sergeants hit some of the same notes, but the soldiers go off to battle alone and do not fight along side their teacher as in Road House. And they don’t contain easy to pocket phrases like “right boot” and “pain don’t hurt” which, since their creation, have been passed endlessly between friends when out at a bar. So ingrained like the words and actions of other cult films, often the origin is forgotten and unknowingly reinterpreted in other media without credit or awareness of their prior existence.

Unreality “reality” shows have followed and developed a few subgenres of their own. Romance, physical abuse, quasi-dramas, roommates, sleep crime, food assault, face humiliation, etc. Focusing on the shows featuring an expert at their center, they differ only from Road House in that nobody has their windpipe torn out through their neck and, so far, blades have been kept off footwear.

These experts put on in such a way that they even further diminish the idea of reality in a “reality” show. Swayze’s Dalton may come off as unbelievable, underdeveloped, or emotionally shallow, but this character of fiction may have more dimension than the people who claim to be real world experts and who allege ignorance of the cameras that capture them.

Do we care if a restaurant owner is unbalanced? Do we care that salon X in Anytown, USA has a bad receptionist? Do we care that immature parents can’t manage their own children? Of course not, and we don’t care about a struggling Missouri bar either, but it hasn’t been sold to us as an insight into real people with real lives that aren’t receiving monetary compensation for their appearance. It has been presented honestly, as a made up story full of made up characters.

What is surprising is that despite Road House being a work of fiction, its effects on pop culture may be more genuine than the reality we’re offerred by these modern day charlatans pedaling their arrogant brand of expertise and ripping off Dalton all the way to the low budget bank.

Or not. Who knows? But, take Dalton’s advice and perhaps we make the world a better place.

“Be nice.”