[Posted from Baltimore]
Recently, I glimpsed a few scenes from so-called Reality TV shows while visiting the homes of family and friends. I found them so ghastly, so offensive, so warped, that I had to ask Why anyone would watch such crap. There seems to be no limit to the depths to which producers of this cheap, sleazy, exploitative junk will sink.
On the amateur talent ‘Idol’ shows, many of the programs appear 100% devoted to people who deliberately abase and humiliate themselves just to get on TV. Those who survive are subjected to humiliation and torture by self-proclaimed, egomaniacal ‘judges’, and then again by no-talent, preening, smarmy, blathering ‘hosts’ who torture the ‘contestants’ (and the audience) for much of the show by teasing them about whether they have been ‘eliminated’, ‘fired’, ‘kicked off the island’ or whatever loser-humiliation the program wallows in. This isn’t clever people playing the court jester to the clued-out king. This is those with power rubbing it in the face of the powerless, throwing the Christians to the lions stuff.
On a do-it-yourself ‘reality’ show, a celebrity repeatedly berates her ‘apprentice’ candidates, accusing them of being lazy, incompetent, valueless. She says there is no work ethic, no pride in achievement anymore. On another, the celebrity literally screams at the ‘apprentices’ that he is the boss, that they are workers, that anything he says, or his wife says, is to be done immediately without question, and that any “worthless” candidate who doesn’t like it will be unceremoniously kicked out because “there are thousands of others who are dying for the opportunity” to face this obnoxious piece of crap’s abuse.
What is going on here? Why do people watch this garbage?
I considered several theories about this before I decided on one that made sense. Here are four theories that didn’t:
The other day I heard an interview with an award-winning (and very funny) Canadian stand-up comedian who is moving to Europe because he is disgusted with the thinness and cheap vulgarity of his fellow North American stand-ups, and the indifference of our crowds to the quality of comedy. He suggested that this generation has been ‘dumbed down’ and now expects less quality, so those ‘selling it’ need not and do not bother to demand quality. That got me thinking — is this all about lowered expectations, and if so, why?
The theory that answers this question, and does make some sense to me, is the Self-Preservation Theory, and it holds that we are intuitively so pessimistic about our future that we need to insulate and inure ourselves against the sadness and suffering that we are likely to face. A recent study suggests that people who are prepared for pain report it as less intense, when it occurs, than people who are surprised by it. While the average person continues to think his/her life is, and will continue to be, better than average, we are overwhelmed with evidence that this ‘average’ is getting worse and will continue to worsen. Subconsciously, perhaps, we are preparing for the worst, numbing ourselves to anguish by witnessing it happening to others and preparing for it ourselves. It is our nature to lower our expectations when things get bad: During Great Depressions, wars, and in the face of personal tragedy, it takes less to make us happy and more to really make us miserable. We adapt.
Generations X and Y clearly have lower expectations of the future than our boomer generation had at the same age. They are the ones whose behaviours increasingly exhibit signs of anomie, fatalism, thrill-seeking and other tendencies (psychopathies?) illustrated in the lower right corner of the above chart. They are the ones who go to see movies with graphic violence and horror that we fund repulsive. And they are the ones (disproportionately) watching Reality TV. Maybe they’re just steeling for a future that will see even more horrific abuses of power, greater disparity between rich and poor, more suffering and misery for all.
Or am I just getting old, and just don’t ‘get it’? What do you think? If the amateur talent ‘Idol’ programs only showed the ultimate winners, in glorious concert, and if the ‘apprentice’ competitions only showed hard-working fast-learning novices accomplishing remarkable things by working together, would anyone watch?
Whimsical postscript: Is it just a coincidence that we learned this week that one of Canada’s highest-paid ‘celebrities’ is the teeth-grindingly glib and talentless moron who ‘hosts’ Canadian Idol, who also happens to be the son of a former prime minister who so abused his power that his hundred-year-old political party waswiped out and taken over by a regional fringe party? What better evidence that wealth and power does not come from talent, hard work and integrity? — Oh, I forgot about the POTUS. Never mind.
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