Another Reality Show, Another Exploitation of American Life

PAM MEISTER

Hold on to your remotes – yet another reality show is coming down the pike. Fox has announced that it’s casting for More to Love, a dating competition show for “average looking” people. Which makes me wonder, of course, why bother having a diet competition show (The Biggest Loser) when there are shows being developed specifically to highlight the dating habits of fat BMI-challenged people. But there could be a tie-in – Contestant A doesn’t make the grade on The Biggest Loser, so she embraces her size and goes on to find love and happiness on More to Love – or not. Wouldn’t that be a ratings bonanza!

Actually, this rant isn’t so much about the fact that overweight people are the new target for reality dating shows, but that reality shows in general are less about reality than exploiting people desperate for stardom and/or money. Would you want to watch a show about the true reality of everyday lives? Watching someone mop the floors, go to the grocery store, pick up the kids from school, realize at dinnertime that there’s no spaghetti sauce in the cupboard and having to run out to the store for the third time that day? Watching paint dry might be more exciting.

A few reality show stars manage to parlay their reality stint into something bigger and longer lasting. Elisabeth Hasselbeck is a prime example – but who really envies her having to argue with her liberal harpy co-hosts each day? Still, most “reality stars” slide back into the obscurity from whence they came, having nothing more to show for the humiliation they endured for the entertainment of millions than a little bit of cash and maybe an autographed photo of the show’s host. Sometimes they even go to jail for failing to pay taxes on their winnings. Maybe Richard Hatch should have applied for a position in the Obama administration – he might have been spared a jail sentence.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. A little. But think about the reality shows you may have seen: what exactly do they bring to the American cultural table? We have shows like Wife Swap, where men like Stephen Fowler humiliate women like Gayla Long, saying things like “your two languages seem to be bad English and redneck” and making negative comments about her weight. Not only was Gayla put through the misery of dealing with the lovely Stephen for two weeks, but after the show aired, Stephen’s world came crashing down upon him. He not only allegedly received death threats but also ended up stepping down from the boards of two non-profits on which he served. Stephen claims the producers encouraged his over-the-top rudeness, but one wonders how much encouragement he really needed. No one will ever know. But the damage – to both families – is done.

Not all reality shows are horrible. I admit to being a fan of the SciFi series Ghost Hunters. Call me a geek if you will. In the beginning, the show focused not just on the search for ghosts but also on the infighting amongst the TAPS members, which I found annoying. However, it’s morphed nicely into a show that’s all about “the hunt” – and has even spawned a sister series called Ghost Hunters International. The only ones being exploited here are the ghosts – that is, on the episodes where they bother to make an appearance.

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, there are many people who would do just about anything for their so-called 15 minutes of fame (thank you, Andy Warhol). Sadly, that includes signing up to be on programs that bring out the worst in human nature. Many of today’s reality shows seem to have evolved from yesterday’s talk shows like Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, Maury Povich and Jenny Jones.

Americans were shocked a decade ago when Jonathan Schmitz murdered Scott Amedure after the two appeared on a “secret crush” episode of Jenny Jones and it was revealed that Amedure’s crush was on Schmitz. Would we have been just as shocked if one of the death threats against Wife Swap’s Stephen Fowler had come true? Or would we have shrugged and said he got what he deserved for being such a putz? (I hope it would be the former.)

The problem is, of course, that shows like More to Love and Wife Swap and – dare I say it – I Want to Be Paris Hilton’s BFF will continue to thrive as long as there is an audience for them. Shows like Desperate Housewives may be sleazy, but at least they’re about fictional characters. As long as we allow ourselves to be titillated by orchestrated outbursts of anger, angst, sex and people making fools of themselves, the entertainment establishment will continue to pump the swill.

Until we begin to expect more for our entertainment dollar, we’ll continue to get less.

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