Reality and Morality

Each day The New York Times, like most newspapers, publishes a television listing that includes a rundown of the day’s movies. But unlike most newspapers, the Times offers its own quirky assessments of these films, with an admirable economy of words.

The paper’s reviewers are generous to films they like. Under Apollo 13, they write Spellbinding true story. Sybil, starring Sally Field, is described simply: Engrossing. Rio Grande, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara receives this encomium: Enough said.


They are less kind to movies they do not care for. Die Hard With a Vengeance is followed by Blood, bombings, car chases, you know. Most enjoyable are listings for movies the paper truly disdains. Son in Law with Pauly Shore? Dreadful. Lord of Illusions with Scott Bakula? Make it disappear. The all-purpose putdown for those films not even worth a glance is Keep dialing (a beloved holdover from pre-remote days).

It must be fun to write these mini-reviews for the Times. Unfortunately, the job also includes penning summaries for all those stale weekly sitcoms and series. How to make compelling the plot line for a recent episode of Ed, for example? Carol writes a scathing restaurant review. Even worse, the hapless reviewer also needs to preview the odious reality shows that now glut the airwaves. Which brings me, finally, to my point.

The other day my eye caught sight of the Times’s pithy description for NBC’s Fear Factor, which read: Contestants eat horse rectums.

Just when it seems that television’s penchant for airing degrading reality shows can sink no lower, it, well, sinks lower. For true to the good gray Times’s description, that evening on Fear Factor contestants were indeed required to consume that particular foodstuff, yet another in its gross-out series of eating challenges.

Reality shows continue to get weirder and, more to the point, meaner. The current season has given us a trashcan full of new shows based on either disgusting or immoral premises. Most notable is Joe Millionaire, in which a number of greedy women are brought to a château to vie for a man whom they believe to be fabulously wealthy. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or perhaps in your own château) you know that the young man, however, is no millionaire: he’s poor! In other words, the show’s primary appeal lies in watching all the women make fools of themselves as they woo Joe Millionaire and then watching just one make a fool of herself when she realizes that her Joe Millionaire is really Joe Sixpack.

The show’s premise is a muddled one. He was typically described in magazine and newspaper articles as poor, a phrase used not to indicate that he is homeless or destitute, but that he makes $19,000 a year as a construction worker. Further, it turns out (the original press releases didn’t tell us this) that Joe hails from a rather wealthy family and attended private schools, and so is perhaps not as poorly off as viewers might assume.

Confused? Don’t worry, because the point of the show remains the same as that of all reality shows: to take delight in others’ misfortune, discomfort, embarrassment, pain or suffering. Or poverty. An underlying conceit of many reality shows is the willingness to make fun of the undereducated, underemployed or indigent. The apparent payoff of Joe Millionaire is watching a woman realize that her man is the worst thing that one can be in our society: not wealthy. CBS recently announced a series called The Real-Life Beverly Hillbillies, in which a poor Southern family would be placed in a wealthy neighborhood and trailed by cameras as they experience such things as shopping in Beverly Hills and hiring domestic help. The poor served up as objects of derisionI can’t imagine anything sadder, for all involved.

The granddaddy of such shows is MTV’s durable series The Real World, now in its 12th season. (For this season the show is based in Las Vegas, a particularly appropriate venue.) Originally focused on the simple travails of getting along with one’s housemates, the show has devolved into a contest among the contestants regarding who can hook up most quickly, who has had sex with whom, who uses condoms and so on.

As with most reality shows, the most breathtaking aspect of The Real World is how eager people areas they continually scream, complain, connive and lieto look ridiculous, immoral and downright cruel on national television. On television the desire for fame (or money) easily trumps any fear of public humiliation. In Real World vs. Road Rules, a sort of reality/game show, one particularly horrid contestant spat in the face of another. When the show’s producers stepped in to eject the fellow (on air, of course; they would never dream of allowing such a juicy confrontation to occur off camera), the rest of the teams, patently confused about such arcane concepts as right and wrong, rallied around the spitter, not the spittee.

Is everyone insane? asked the offended party, who was unsurprisingly confused. The answer was yes.

Speaking of insane, it’s a fair bet that we will see even more reality shows next fall. The stunning ratings success (and low cost) of these programs has sent TV execs scrambling to find the next Joe Millionaire or Survivor. In fact, a few series have already been announced for the fall season. (And I’m not making any of these up.) First there is Human Resources, where unemployed people will compete with one another for a job (the loser, again, stays poor); Married by America, to air on Fox, where relationship experts pick spouses for contestants, which viewers will ratify; and The Will, on ABC, in which families and friends battle one another over a deceased relative’s inheritance. You may also be interested to learn that Man vs. Beast, which first aired a few weeks ago, has apparently failed to make the fall lineup. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. The show included an eating contest between a Japanese man and a Kodiak bear, as well as an airplane-pulling competition between an elephant and a crowd of little people. (For the record, if you are planning to invite a Kodiak bear to your next church picnic, you would do well to stock up on hot dogs.)

Of course some reality shows are silly and light and, on rare occasions, amusing. One suspects, for example, that the C-List celebrities on Celebrity Fear Factor, Star Dates and Surreal World know how asinine they appear. (On the other hand, Anna Nicole Smith seems largely clueless about this.) There are even a few intelligent reality shows, notably the string of what you might call Old-Fashioned Living shows on PBS: Frontier House, 1900 House and 1940’s House, as well as the upcoming Colonial House, where presumably we will learn how Ethan Allen found the time to make all that nice furniture. Here you will find relatively normal people attempting to live with a modicum of dignity and decency in difficult situations. Here you may even discover something of interest about the past, and learn something about patience and about resourcefulness.

The reality shows on the networks are not so edifying. They specialize, as our columnist Terry Golway pointed out last week, in degradation and exploitation. But in the end, their most disturbing feature is how many contestants are revealed by their actions and words to have absolutely no conception of the moral life.

The one way that reality shows could prove salutary is by serving as cautionary talesa kind of horrible cycle of morality plays. Here you will find, spread before you like a rotten smorgasbord, the deadly sins of greed, pride, gluttony, sloth, lust, envy and anger, all served up with the condiments of deceit and cruelty. In other words, if you’re looking for a simple way to determine what is moral and right, you need look no further than shows like The Real World, Blind Date, Elimidate, Joe Millionaire and The Bachelor.

Then just do the opposite.

Otherwise these shows are largely useless, and, in planning your TV viewing, you would do well to take the advice of the New York Times: Keep dialing.

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15 years 9 months ago
James Martin fails to make one vital connection between the moral and immoral reality shows. There is no monetary gain on the moral shows. I think that says a lot.

15 years 9 months ago
James Martin fails to make one vital connection between the moral and immoral reality shows. There is no monetary gain on the moral shows. I think that says a lot.


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