Do any of you have any concerns about the proliferation of what our culture has come to call “reality television?”
In one sense, I suppose that shows like AMERICAN IDOL and DANCING WITH THE STARS are nothing more than entertaining, albeit tacky, manifestations of our culture’s desire for spectacle. But what about some of the more insidious incarnations of reality television—shows that specialize in making public those encounters, experiences, and relationships that were once considered too precious and too personal to share with the world.
We had the opportunity to witness the unraveling of Nick and Jessica’s marriage in NEWLYWEDS. With TEMPTATION ISLAND, we were given front row seats to the weekly trivialization of marital fidelity. Danny Bonaduce (formerly Danny Partridge!) highlights his various personal struggles and addictions in BREAKING BONADUCE. On SURVIVOR, the unwanted island-dwellers are unceremoniously voted off the island by the tribal council. If you want to reduce romance to crass evaluations of date-performance, then tune into THE BACHELOR.
I will acknowledge my bias at the outset. I have never….NEVER…watched a reality television show. I have never seen AMERICAN IDOL or any versions of SURVIVOR. I have never seen DANCING WITH THE STARS or BIG BROTHER or THE REAL WORLD. Truth be told, I resent these shows. To me, they represent a rejection of the creative storytelling that good television makes possible in favor of manufactured contexts that come across like someone else’s home movies.
Reality television appeals, not to our creative impulses, but to our pathological forms of voyeurism—our desire to witness the often-awkward spectacle of other people’s experiences. The fact that they are “real” experiences (whatever that means) changes they way we view them. Unlike our experience with other television shows, in reality television, we are not called upon to suspend our disbelief. Rather, we are called upon to suspend our desire to mind our own business, long enough to immerse ourselves in the business of others.
My fear is that reality television is an expression of our ever-deepening desensitization to the emotional complexity of the human pilgrimage. Think about the movies ED TV and THE TRUMAN SHOW. They were meant to be caricatures of our idolatrous passion to be entertained by other people’s intimacy and brokenness. In light of recent developments in television, however, I am led to believe that those two films were more prophetic than they were caricatural.
Here, I suppose, is my fundamental question: What kind of a culture are we becoming when we find entertainment in the often-awkward and painful experiences of other souls?
I am not calling for boycotts and hysteria. I am simply asking that we be sensitive to the nature of what we find entertaining. Beyond that, I am asking us to reflect upon what reality television reveals to us about the temperament and direction of our culture.
It does not appear that there will be any limitation of the proliferation of reality television any time soon. After all, AMERICAN IDOL, DANCING WITH THE STARS, THE BACHELOR, and DEAL OR NO DEAL were all in the top-twenty last week, with AMERICAN IDOL occupying BOTH the first and second place positions (with well over 30 million viewers).
Next month, we can look forward to SCOTT BAIO IS 45…AND SINGLE (a VH1 show focusing on the personal life of the former HAPPY DAYS star). After that will come A&E’s THE TWO COREYS (featuring the co-habitation of two former child stars, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim).