Thursday, February 20, 2003

(The Hollywood Reporter)

(Mark Twain)

Once, when Jesus was particularly dismayed by the obtuseness of his apostles, he cried out, “Can you not read the signs of the times?” The cry echoes down through the ages as a challenge for every subsequent generation of disciples to keep their fingers in the air and their spirits alert. The "Signs of the Times" are there for us to discern openings for evangelization in the mass murmurings of disquiet that periodically sweep through human society. The "Signs of the Times" are also there so that we, who have God in our framework, are ready to hit the ground knees first to forestall or ward off disasters wrought by sin.

In television right now, there is only one "Sign of the Times" because it has swept away all other trends with its gale force irresistibility to American audiences. Reality Television is clearly the entertainment of choice for the masses today, and try as I might, I just can’t figure out what this trend means. But from my perspective of clinging to a spiritual rooftop during this weird flood, it seems clear that there is more and more trash rushing by in the primetime deluge.

I never actually watched a whole episode of Survivior or The Bachelor, or Joe Millionaire or The Mole or Big Brother or The Bachelorette or whatever was the name of that one about the C-list celebrities with cabin fever. As an entertainment industry writer, I have a knee-jerk reaction against any shows that don’t employ large staffs of scribes. But as someone who tries to follow the "Signs of the Times" in entertainment, I have tuned in for fragments here and there. I watched just enough of the last episode of the first Survivor to witness one despicable and filthy female telling another that she would like to preside over her death of thirst in a hot desert if she could. I watched one sequence of The Bachelorette in which she was showering with one of her young suitors. Both scenes struck me as shameful and even revolting – entertaining in the way that hearing your neighbors fight through thin walls is at once awkward and eerily fascinating.

My experience with reality shows began several years ago with MTV’s The Real World. The premise of the show was very similar to CBS’ Big Brother, except that Real World participants only got compensated with notoriety as opposed to the money and notoriety that was in it for Big Brother participants. For awhile, I was enthralled by the characters and internecine warfare that each Real World series profiled. But after three or four cities worth of shows, all the infighting, backstabbing, mob depravity, cliques and cruelty became boring and repetitive. One day, I came to the conclusion that if you’ve seen one houseful of stressed out exhibitionists, you’ve seen them all.

Part of the success of the reality shows can be chalked up to the competitive aspect that has everybody in the office betting on who would last the longest, eat the grossest thing, be given a rose or get a record contract. But there has to be more to it than just the thrill of competition. Witness the last Olympics which, while full of teams to bet on, ended up doing unremarkably in the ratings department.

Reality shows are compelling because they give viewers the chance to rubbberneck at the pain that other people are going through. In polite society, gawking at the discomfort of others is considered gauche. Reality television gives us an insider’s perspective on real traumas that we have no natural license to witness.

And that doesn't have to be bad. A hundred years ago, Emily Dickinson wrote about the inclination to “measure every grief I meet with narrow slanting eyes” so as to “wonder if it feels like mine, or has an easier size.” Dickinson concludes that there is a certain comfort that comes to us from “passing the Calvary” of others. Seen with eyes of compassion, watching human suffering can give us a sense that we are not alone in this valley of tears, and that the body is a frail vessel which is passing away.

The trouble is Survivor, and The Bachelorette and Joe Millionaire, are shot and cut together without the compassion that would make them good for us. Compassionate sensibilities would shield the weak and vulnerable from having their failures paraded in public view. Compassionate sensibilities would not serve up the depression and sins of real people for the voyeuristic enjoyment of others. Compassionate sensibilities would dictate a level of decorum in the way we approach other persons; it would accord them a respectful distance and privacy because they have an innate dignity, whether they have lost sight of it or not.

Viewers of reality shows are not drawn into authentic solidarity with the shows’ participants through compassion. Instead, a viewer is set up in the false and condescending perspective of one who is judge of the participants. We sneer at their follies and rationalizations. We gawk at them writhing in embarrassing and degrading situations and then we place bets on them like they are pit bulls in a back alley. It’s kind of sick, America.

It doesn't matter if the participants in reality shows are okay with all of this, or not. We wouldn't take advantage of a retarded person who danced naked in the street. Well, some of the people who are consenting to have their private moments exposed in reality television, could be argued to be socially or morally or intellectually or spiritually retarded. And we're all fine with objectifying them, because they have given their consent.

The draw of many of the reality shows is very similar to what attracted the throngs in Rome to watch the gladiators go at it in the Coliseum. This kind of entertainment is like a contagious rash that we, with a fallen nature, love to scratch and scratch until we die of the infection. The stakes have to keep getting higher and higher for the titillation factor to kick in. History records that the throngs in Paris during the French Revolution needed always more victims on the guillotine to placate their hunger for the blood and death which had become their entertainment. One Survivor fan told me that he needed to watch the show every night because he was afraid if he didn’t, “he might miss a trainwreck.” That is, he wanted to see the characters get aggressive with each other. That was the point. That was the draw.

Someone noted to me today that the finale of Joe Millionaire was "good TV." When I asked what was good about it, he responded that it was fascinating. Just to be clear: Fascinating isn't necessarily good. We can be mesmerized by many things which slowly poison us.

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