Writing about television in a magazine that already publishes the elegant thoughts of James Martin, S.J., on the subject is fraught with peril, but I will proceed apace. From my perspective, comparison can inspire only humility, and that is not such a bad thing.
Humiliation, on the other hand, is quite different, and not nearly as spiritually enriching. But humiliation is all the rage on what is called, for reasons that escape me, reality television. Young women are held up for a great national guffaw on a particularly noxious show called “Joe Millionaire,” from the cultural barbarians and nihilists at Fox. Last year, men and women of all ages were brought onto the set of a quiz show so that they might be subjected to the scorn and sarcasm of a smarmy hostess with a clipped British accent. A syndicated show at some godforsaken hour (for me, any time after 10 p.m.) has lots of fun with lonely single people willing to trade privacy for a television-sponsored date.
Yes, humiliation is quite the trend out there in reality television land. Worse, nobody seems particularly outraged. Television in particular and society in general clearly have taken to heart a lesson that dates back to the early 1980’s: There are two kinds of people in life—winners and losers. And winners are entitled to laugh at the losers. That has not always been true in popular culture. The great radio comedian Fred Allen used to laugh with the subjects of his humor. But when a couple of Bangladeshi newsdealers became short-lived regulars on David Letterman’s old late-night show, the laughs were on them. They talked funny, you know. And they sold newspapers for a living. Hilarious, eh?
So we have become accustomed to laughing at, not with, our fellow Americans, those unknown, unrich, unhip (though rarely unlovely—this is television, after all) creatures who simply do not understand what desperate losers they are. We laugh at the women the Fox network lied to about their Joe Millionaire character, who, as you may have guessed, is not a millionaire at all. Worse, he’s a poorly paid laborer who happens to be blessed with good looks and, apparently, a smooth line of chat. What a laugh! How proud Fox was to have tricked these young women and then showed the nation the results of its lies! (Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media mogul whose print publications feature commentators who regularly bemoan the loss of traditional values, etc.)
Lest you think that I have far too much time on my hands during the prime-time hours, let me state that I have not watched any of these shows. I’ve read about them, and that alone made me feel in desperate need of a shower. My idea of reality television is a show that features an assortment of men and women hitting a little white ball down an emerald green pasture, or, on occasion, into a large blue lake or even into a yawning crater filled with sand. Now that’s entertainment!
Still, even with such parochial viewing habits, I can’t help but notice that television executives are delighted with the success of the degrading “Joe Millionaire” and variations on the theme. We know they are delighted because they keep producing more shows starring Humiliation. Fred Allen once said that imitation is the sincerest form of television—and this from a man who died in 1956, an era considered television’s “golden age”—so we can expect other networks to create reality shows based on lies told to naïve young women.
Sadly, there are depths even beyond “Joe Millionaire” to which our entertainment moguls are more than happy to descend. The ABC network has unveiled a reality show in which contestants vie for the chance to win...cosmetic surgery! In a related development, the network is planning a new show called “Are You Hot?” Suffice to say the show is not so titled because it is set in Atlanta in August. There is no word from the network on a pressing question: will the winners of cosmetic plastic surgery be allowed to compete in “Are You Hot?”
Sadly, only a cultural naïf—or somebody who watches a bit too much televised golf—would be shocked to discover that television executives will show just about anything in order to get ratings. What is surprising, however, is the lack of national reflection on the values these shows celebrate. Reality shows offer the possibility of fleeting fame in exchange for the probability of national humiliation. Are we so degraded that we are willing to make that pernicious trade? And what of a show built around cosmetic surgery? What message does that send?
Television critics and others who write about the medium—that would include some of the nation’s best-known political writers, it would seem—see no reason to question the morality and ethics of shows like “Joe Millionaire” and the plastic surgery giveaway. Indeed, they would find it unfashionably earnest to even use the words “morality” and “ethics” in an essay about television. They accept, as the networks have, that the pursuit of shallow fame, unearned riches and artificial beauty constitute reality in 21st-century America, and those who choose to play the game have only themselves to blame if the quest ends, as it is designed to, in humiliation.
Television’s reality shows specialize in degradation and exploitation. A less cynical society would condemn these shows rather than celebrate them.