Friday, January 06, 2006

Reality Bites: The Cynical Underpinning of Reality TV

From “Survivor” to “The Amazing Race,” from “The Apprentice” to “Project Runway,” the ugly truth is that, far from being a competition in which the best contestant wins, Reality TV shows are rife with infighting, political cliques, backbiting, betrayal, and exclusion. Alliances are formed, individuals are targeted for expulsion, and participants often lie about each other in order to put themselves in a better light than their competitors.

In one of the final episodes of “The Apprentice”-- before Randall committed the final dastardly act of selfishness -- his team discovered that the competing team had arranged to purchase every available megaphone from a store chain for an upcoming promotion. He and Rebecca agreed to preempt the other team, and Rebecca swept in to the store, misrepresented herself to the store clerk, and made off with the other team’s megaphones. Donald Trump’s response? “Good for them!” (By the way, Rebecca: that was a clue!)

What does the acceptance of this behavior say about American culture? Have we entered an era of social Darwinism in which “the survival of the fittest” rules? Is Reality TV redefining the values of the American people, or are they only reflecting a shift that had already taken place?

Consider this: Over a million additional Americans fell below the poverty level in the year 2004. Over forty million Americans are without health insurance coverage. Huge spikes in oil and natural gas prices, even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, threatened the financial survival of the working poor as they faced a harsh winter and impossibly high heating fuel bills. And all the while, Congress and the Bush administration promoted tax cuts for the wealthy, okayed windfall profits and subsidies for the oil companies, discussed cutting fuel assistance programs -- all the while running their fingers through Jack Abramoff's money.

Survival of the fittest. Now think about Katrina and Rita, and the woefully inadequate governmental response, and the circling of land speculators around the ruined neighborhoods of New Orleans only days after the hurricane.

Substitute food and water for those purloined megaphones, and adequate health care, and decent affordable housing, and ask yourselves: Is the view of life expressed many times a week on these Reality TV shows what we truly want for this country? Do we want our government and private citizens to react to a disaster like Katrina by fighting for necessities, cutting the weak out of the loop when it comes to essential services, and turning our backs on the most vulnerable among us in favor of the strong, the healthy, the well-connected, and the rich? Because those are the values we’re worshipping constantly in our support of the ubiquitous Reality TV programming.

We need to take a good look at Reality TV and the morally bankrupt values it is promoting, and ask ourselves this: What do we as citizens want our relationship to be with each other? What do we want our government, which acts as our surrogate, to do to help the poorest and the weakest among us? Are we really committed to the “survival of the fittest” view as expressed by Reality TV, corporate interests, and current government officials, or do we want to create a community which provides a safety net for the vulnerable and help for each other in the event of unexpected misfortune?

I admit to having a fondness for "The Apprentice," and a soft spot in my heart for The Donald. And I cackle with glee when a particularly arrogant, rude, or snotty contestant gets his or her comeupance. But the events on the Gulf Coast and more recent revelations about corruption in Congress have made me face a grim fact: Reality TV eerily reflects the cynicism and self-interest that permeates American society today, and the implications of that, should another widespread disaster strike, are not pretty.

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