Really? Is this how we like to spend our evenings (and, for some, much of the day), relishing the humiliation of people on TV? This isn’t Alex Keaton torturing his sister Mallory on Family Ties, although the roots of our fascination with degradation are embedded there also, however couched they may be in apparently innocuous familial exchanges. So-called Reality TV has finally dragged us into the depths of our basest selves to giggle at the shenanigans of couples and families embroiled in a death dance around the kitchen table!
Did it start with Survivor as we watched participants form and renegotiate partnerships and alliances to ensure their survival at the expense of the “others,” until they became “the others?” Or the auditions of countless hapless performers laying bare their misguided souls to win a chance at American Idol to be further demeaned by the unctuous Simon Cowell, whose only talent lay in offering sarcastic soundbites that passed for artistic evaluations? All we really tuned in to see was his predatory feasting on luckless youngsters with stars in their eyes! Which in some ways was easier to stomach than the gush of non-sequiturs pouring out of the stoned eyes of Paula Abdul! This is what passes for entertainment these days! Then there are the Real Housewives who parade their ludicrous lives and Botox-treated features across our screens every week. Small wonder that so many of those marriages ended in divorce and it was only a matter of time before someone sought ultimate release from shame in suicide! That the participants accept their destruction in front of a national audience just for the opportunity of appearing before that audience is a sick commentary on our abject need for attention!
I suppose humor has always fed on humiliation of some sort or another. The French philosopher Henri Bergson suggested that something mechanical encrusted upon the living is the source of that which we find ridiculous and risible. In other words, unless something awkward or artificial interrupts the fluidity of human living it tends not to be funny. Someone always has to be “IT.” But it’s a far cry from sitcom one-liners centered on ludicrous “everyday” situations to having cameras follow effete housewives and an assortment of humanity’s odds and ends! Television has reversed the mirror and is finally parodying itself, making TV into “Real Life,” and finding, as always, an eager audience in our prurient tendencies!
Of course, this is hardly new. Talk Shows have been around for a long time; The Jerry Springer Show ripped off the thin veneer of make-believe, forcing us not so much to suspend our disbelief as to gasp in disbelief!! Then Survivor and M-TV’s Real Life, both spawned in 1992, elevated dysfunctional reality into entertainment, paving the way for “simplistic” concepts to replace good writing. But it does appear that we have turned a corner and now spend Prime Time delighting in the mortification of fellow human beings through the judging panels on Idol or Dancing with the Stars or innumerable cooking, fashion, and comedy shows!
Perhaps there’s another perspective here. What if all of this is just a coming to terms with who we really are? What if we are finally stripping off the masks of polite tolerance and political correctness to reveal our true character? That we cannot really stomach the good fortune of neighbors and, in this fame-obsessed culture, anyone who dares to or tries to become a celebrity must needs be ripped to shreds! Were it not at least a bit true, The National Enquirer would have closed after the first issue and paparazzi wouldn’t be a familiar term! Let’s face it, deep in our bones is a reservoir of jealousy that seeps occasionally to the surface—until now! Now it gushes up and spills over, for we don’t have to be civil anymore in this media-driven age of blogs and “investigative reporting” (just an excuse to dig up dirt), where opinions can be freely displayed with no sense of responsibility and everyone’s life is an open book from which we can tear pages!
As we cower in our disenchanted corners, filled with the angst of the 21st century, disenfranchised by the systems and policies that purported to help us, we are no longer going to pretend to be happy at the successes of the Joneses! Not only that, but we will exult in their failures! This is the age of Schadenfreude, that German word that so aptly describes the tenor of the times—delighting in the misery of others! As Schopenhauer put it: “To feel envy is human, to savor Schadenfreude is devilish.” Widening gaps between rich and poor, disillusionment in a fading American dream, tense relations between nations and races, religious and communal discord, poverty amid unbelievable wealth, athletes on steroids, terrorism around every corner, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, global warming, and economic crises have all contributed to the cynicism of the times—and now we have outlets through which to air the thoughts that used to be private musings in our heads. Now we can respond with vitriol and unmitigated anger to a hundred blogs with no fear of repercussion. There are no monitors, no filters, and no policemen unless we make a “bomb” joke in an airport! Everyone from the miserable off-key singer auditioning on Idol to the President or Pope is fair game! We have stripped away veneers of civility built over decades and are transmogrifying social playgrounds into jungles! We are receding into our origins, trapped in an entropic spiral towards impotence. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But we deny the patterns at our peril!
Let’s not kid ourselves! This is the truth of Us. Reality Shows feed an insatiable hunger. Television is filled with people shouting at one another. Where is the art of conversation, except on commercial-free PBS (hmm…)? When Donald Trump, a real estate conman, can have a successful TV show that’s basically about firing people, when he announces a run for the Presidency and not everybody bursts into derisive laughter, when CNN seeks his opinion on global financial markets, it’s time to roll up the floor and head for the desert to sit at the feet of a tireless sphinx!
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.