Talk shows shame, but don’t help

I have this dirty little secret.It contradicts everything I stand for, everything I’m trying to learn. But what can I say? I’m human … I watch talk shows.
Not the Oprah feel-good ones, not the Rosie kid-oriented ones. No, I’m talkin’ about Jerry Springer and his decadent entourage of strippers, transgenders, cheaters, self-mutilators and incest-driven bizarros — yeah, that’s what makes my weeknights happen.
Let’s face it, most of us know talk shows are smut. They’re an excuse to watch people get hurt. It is a voyeuristic excursion into some very strange lives. And it’s a way to make us feel like our lives are worth at least more than theirs.
And we love it. We love smut. By “we” I don’t just mean the general public. “We” also means college students. We hide in our TV rooms and vicariously break taboos that we reconstruct the next day as if nothing had happened … but we watch.
If Springer didn’t have a significant audience, his show wouldn’t be on the air. Corporate broadcasting firms do not normally take such high risks, unless the money is there.
So why me? Why “we?” Why are we drawn to “Lesbian cousins in love,” or, “I cut off my manhood,” or “I married my horse?” Maybe it’s the angst we feel moving into the next millennium. Or maybe it has something to do with the jaded culture of Gen X and current teens. They’ve seen it/done it all, so what’s a little bestiality?
Talk shows seem like the natural outgrowth of a society that is learning to talk about itself, learning to talk about its quirks and eccentricities. It wasn’t that long ago the word “pregnant” couldn’t be said on the “I Love Lucy” show. An interracial family or a gay leading character were even more taboo.
Talk shows are a form of “society in therapy,” and the patient doesn’t know what to reveal about itself, or how to reveal it, whatever “it” is.
When kids first learn to talk about sex, they giggle a lot, and say stupid things. This is what talk show audiences are like, a bunch of giggly little kids.
We obviously don’t know how to publicly discuss such subjects as incest. So we gawk at others as they make fools of themselves trying to do what we can’t do. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
But there are undercurrents flowing that make me change the channel in the midst of many of the shows. While exposing what really happens in society is good, and can lead to discussion that facilitates some sort of acceptance, that’s not exactly what talk shows are geared to do.
It’s all about shame. It’s easy to morally condemn those people who live outside of what is considered “normal.” It’s easy to reactively judge them. That’s what talk show hosts and their audiences do best.
The initial thrust behind talk shows as a vehicle to expose controversial issues was a good one. But now it’s corrupted. These shows are not helping us in the long run. Transitioning away from current formats is in our therapeutic best interests.
We can’t go on with this modern day “Roman versus lion” thing — you know, throwing someone in the pit. There is a limit to the number of bizarre topics out there. It gets predictable and it gets boring. If a stripper is on the show, she’s probably going to take off her shirt. If it’s the “Viewers talk back to the KKK,” someone’s going to get punched out.
The panelists walk into a war zone. It becomes increasingly hard to sympathize with them, because everyone knows what is going to happen when you tell your mother you want to marry your first cousin. Whenever panelists themselves are shocked at the audiences reaction, it makes them look all that more foolish.
Talk show panelists reveal something else, besides secrets. They want acceptance, they want love, they want their 15 minutes of feeling like they’re somebody. It propels the talk show format because they are never lacking in people willing to humiliate themselves in the name of getting attention.
It’s getting old. It’s getting burnt out. Maybe it’s time to start incorporating some intelligent discussion, more like “Politically Incorrect,” or from the past, the Donohue show. Better yet, maybe it’s just time for us to start dealing with all these insecurities, quirks and secrets on a personal level.
There are other mediums in which to talk about our less-than-normal selves: films, TV shows, types of music that don’t humiliate as easily as weekly talk shows.
It’s become a glut of madness. There are so many talk shows now that you can’t get away from them. There’s Ricki, Jenny, Montel, Jerry, and the latest “Forgive or Forget.” And they each take their area of specialization — makeovers, lost family members, jilted lovers — and they beat it into the ground.
Talk shows were spawned because of something our culture was going through: a purging. The idea doesn’t have to become obsolete, but the more glut, the less interested people will be. Strangeness will become normal. Taboo becomes a joke. As an audience, we become jaded and bored.
And really, how many people are going to voluntarily keep walking into the lion’s den?

Sara Hurley’s column appears every Monday. Send comments to [email protected]