Saturday, July 17, 2010


I was blindsided the other day. Caught completely off guard and got sucked in to watching a "reality" show. (I just can't bring myself to leave the quotes off that word.)

The offending--and I mean offending-rubberneck fodder was ABC's True Beauty in which, according to the network, "10 gorgeous people have no clue they're competing in an inner-beauty contest."

The irony knows no bounds when the hosts/judges on the show watch from behind closed doors as the contestants, who are competing for a position as the Face of Vegas, are given opportunities not only to show their prowess as spokesmodels, but are also put into situations in which they are tempted to be petty, dishonest, and downright snobbish. The hosts are really no different than the contestants. They are "beautiful" people themselves and it's implied that they have true inner beauty or why else would they be in a position to judge the inner beauty of others? Yet in an almost Clockwork Orangian scene at the end of each episode, they parade the faults of the fallen contestants before them for no apparent reason other than to provide some carnage for us at home to feast on. That seems at least as petty as the actions or inactions of the contestants. For instance, the last contestant to lose and get booted off the show and who was already in tears for having her dreams of being the Face of Vegas shattered, was forced to stand there and watch footage of her lying, cheating, and failing to help a pregnant woman with her luggage. In a truly awkward moment she said, "Can I go now?" To which the judges said nothing. You could almost see some uncertainty in the eyes of the judges who seemed like interrogators of a suspect who'd just "lawyered up."

The answer was, she couldn't go now, even though she had nothing left to lose and there was nothing to keep her there. We weren't finished beating her down for not having enough inner beauty. Here's another kick in the face for not being kinder to strangers. Here's one ostensibly to show how much better we are than you since you lied and cheated. Never mind that there's nothing "real" about this "reality" show.

It's a little disturbing watching the holier-than-thou, plastic-surgury riddled judges putting the smack-down on someone who just wants to be like them.

But this isn't limited to reality shows. There's a rubberneck quality masquerading as altruism in most TV shows today. Take Law and Order: SVU, a police unit devoted to helping victims of sexual crimes. Sounds like a noble idea. What's on screen, however, is every foul and deviant sexual practice you can imagine being catalogued for you in a titillating and grotesque manner. The show isn't about protecting the innocent at all. It's about shocking an audience who's senses are dulled to near incomprehension by the hundreds of other "ripped from the headlines" shows so they'll stay tuned through the commercials.

Television production values and even the writing have gotten much better over the years. TV execs have become adept at learning what the audience wants and giving it to them. It wasn't always like that. I've heard interviews with retired execs admitting that they thought they could tell the audience what it wanted and that's why most of the shows were so horrible.

But maybe what we want isn't so good for us. When Newton Minow was FCC Chairman in 1961, he said, "When television is good, nothing--not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers--nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse." Now, almost 50 years later, the "Vast Wasteland" is only getting vaster.

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