Reality TV exploits human suffering

Matthew Brophy

There was a mentally challenged kid in my high school the “normal” kids always made fun of. Kids would ask him to dance, and he would – thinking the laughter was with him rather than at him. During lunch, people would pay him to eat things out of the garbage can. Obviously, these kids were jerks. However, I was personally more disturbed by the other kids who thought it was OK to stand there and laugh, watching it as a form of entertainment.

The same kind of sick voyeurism has made its way onto our TV sets. Human exploitation is now big business in entertainment. As consumers, we are feeding more and more on other people’s dysfunction, desperation and suffering. Television has always been known for its lowbrow programming (which is why National Public Radio-subscribing elitists often brag about how they don’t even own a TV) but only recently has a new half-breed of reality TV reared its ugly head. This new derivative crosses moral boundaries by mocking its real-life subjects and relishing in their misery.

“The Anna Nicole Smith Show” is a robust example of this new form of reality TV. The show’s slogan is “It’s not supposed to be funny. It just is.” Here is a woman who is drugged up, tragically dimwitted, corpulent and ostensibly depressed. Furthermore, she seems to lack anyone who seems to care for her as a human being. To us, she’s just a circus sideshow. To TV execs, she’s merely a cash cow. She represents a new kind of celebrity: the mock celebrity – those “stars” who garner not 15 minutes of fame but 15 minutes of notoriety.

Every week, we can tune into the E! Channel to entertain ourselves with Anna’s harebrained struggles and slurring. Sure, she’s comically dumb and clueless. But should her pathetic condition be our entertainment? Perhaps her personal deterioration should invoke our pity rather than our laughter.

The newest slop thrown into the reality TV trough is “The Surreal Life.” This show exploits several showbiz has-beens by offering them publicity in exchange for their debasement. Dangling the low-grade crack of notoriety to former stars strung out on fame, TV execs have convinced the likes of Vince Neil (Motley Crew), Corey Feldman (the other Corey was too A-list) and Emmanuel Lewis (“Webster”) to shack up together for 10 days. During their stay, they have to participate in various activities, such as selling tickets on Hollywood Boulevard for their “Talent Show.”

At least these washed-up stars seem fully cognizant they are being mocked – I mean, Vince Neil and Webster sharing a bunk bed? However, just because they know they’re being used by television producers doesn’t mean they’re not being exploited. Suffering from withdrawal, these stars would probably lick toilets to get into the limelight again. My gripe isn’t about their welfare, though (I don’t have much sympathy for Neil, who saturated radio and MTV with “Jumpstart My Heart,” “Girls Girls Girls,” and “Unskinny Bop” – oh wait, that was Poison). Certainly “Circus of the Stars” or “Hollywood Squares” is just as painfully degrading to former stars, but at least it’s not the stars’ debasement that’s supposed to be the entertainment.

My concern is rather for the viewers of exploitative television and our character as a TV-watching nation. The average person watches more than four hours of television a day. Reality programming is an increasingly dominant share of that pie. Do we want to support the ill values of such entertainment by watching it? What we watch and talk about at the proverbial water coolers of America determines what shows are created next season. We decide which trends survive. Do we want to be like the callous high schooler encouraging the ridicule of the mentally challenged kid? Do we want our kids to be watching such programming?

The famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, moralized that we should never treat another human being merely as a means, but always as an ends in themselves.

However, exploitative television isn’t anything new. Jerry Springer, for example, has long luxuriated in our baser appetites for violence and misery. Such topics as “Slutty Out-of-Control Teenage Daughters go to Boot Camp Because They’re Pregnant With Their Boyfriend’s Best Friends’ Baby” have sated our desire to see other humans’ suffering. My concern isn’t for the ultra-drama of trailer park crackers, unmitigated by the cheese of Springer’s redemptive “final thought.” My concern is for the viewer and viewing community. We are degrading ourselves by endorsing and being titillated by the exploitation of real people.

Our desire for real-life violence is sated by “Celebrity Boxing” (you had to feel bad for Greg Brady when he got creamed by Danny Bonaduce). Our disturbed fascination for sex and treachery is showcased in “Temptation Island” – a show that essentially tries to break up couples by throwing lusty lovelies at each boyfriend and girlfriend. Our spiteful amusement is invoked as we watch “Joe Millionaire” – a show that lies to its female contestants, telling them their dreamy bachelor just inherited 50 million dollars; we, in turn, sit in front of our TVs, rubbing out hands together waiting for the gold diggers to get their due.

Shall we indulge our baser desires with the commercialization of human suffering and stupidity? Should we be consumers of others’ real-life pain and misery, gleeful voyeurs of the downtrodden? Misery loves company, and an entire nation sits in its living room watching the television freak show.

I am reminded of Maximus, from the movie “Gladiator,” who derisively asked, sword dripping with human blood, “Are you not entertained!?”

I am by no means an entertainment puritan. I enjoy “The Osbournes,” “South Park,” “Married with Children,” etc. And sure, not all TV shows can have the luminescent revelations of “Touched by an Angel,” the comedic genius of “Becker,” the adorableness of the motley litter of “Seventh Heaven,” nor the smart, spicy sass of “The Bonnie Hunt Show.” All I’m claiming is that, perhaps for the first time in television history, there is a moral choice to be made when watching our TV sets. And unless we dig in our moral heels now, TV execs are going to serve up a steaming pile of depravity every subsequent season.

Case in point: Tune in this summer as TV execs capitalize on death. “The Will” banks on our morbid desire to watch family relatives scream, spit and claw at each other for a bigger slice of inheritance – all the while brown-nosing the soon-to-croak grandfather.

If only King Lear had had television producers at his disposal.

Matthew Brophy’s biweekly column appears alternate Wednesdays.

He welcomes comments at [email protected]

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