Reality TV is bad for us. There, I’ve said it. It’s not just that it steals hours from our lives that we’ll never get back, it’s also changing the way we look at people.
Night after night, reality TV presents us with the worst of human traits: greed, jealousy, vanity, pettiness, anger, vengefulness — and those are just the minor flaws.
“An American Family,” which aired in 1973, on PBS of all things, is considered the first reality TV show. I didn’t watch it, but I do know the Loud family didn’t fare well during the filming or after. Though the show was lauded by the likes of Margaret Mead, it let the genie out of the voyeurism-as-entertainment bottle. Those genies are impossible to stuff back in, you know.
As a result, we are drowning in dysfunction dished up as entertainment. Yeah, I know these shows are an escape, a guilty pleasure, but they set the bar so low.
If we compare ourselves to a Kardashian, for instance, we come off looking pretty good. “Well, at least I’m not as shallow as Kim and Khloe.” (I’m sorry I know those names. I did pause on the show a couple of times to confirm that I was indeed looking at Bruce Jenner, the Olympic athlete, who now appears to function as a house pet for his wife and stepdaughters.)
Much has been made of the “crucify him” chorus during a recent GOP debate, in which the audience cheered the idea of letting an uninsured 30-year-old die rather than treating him.
If I were being generous to those who gave this poor theoretical man the thumbs down, I would say they were not imagining their next door neighbor, Little League coach or church elder, but were thinking of someone they couldn’t possibly know or like or even bump into at work or church. They don’t seem to realize any one of us can lose our health coverage because of the least little bit of bad luck.
If we base our perception of “other people” on what we see on reality TV, it’s too easy to dislike strangers. We endow them with every stereotypical shortcoming depicted by cable shows. Consider Kate Gosling, the housewives of whatever, addicted celebrities in rehab or Danny Bonaduce in any one of his unattractive incarnations and take a reading of your compassion level.
If the mental image of the stricken 30-year-old man is one created by reality TV, it’s too easy to imagine a selfish, shallow person who contributes little to society.
Reality TV, though staged (to what extent I don’t know), purports to give us “real” people living “real” lives for our viewing pleasure or disgust, with disgust contributing to much higher ratings.
No wonder that vocal GOP minority isn’t willing to foot a stranger’s medical bill.
It would be much easier to pull the plug on a theoretical Snooki than the guy across the street — wouldn’t it?
Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.