Men and women eating Madagascar hissing cockroaches is wildly funny, especially during the gag-reflex slo-mo replay. Washed-up celebrities living together for 10 days in a California mansion once owned by Glen Campbell is pointless and sad, especially after they've had too many glasses of white wine. Twenty-five women competing to marry some guy they don't even know is just plain puzzling.
On the other hand, a game in which 20 women vie for the "love" of a multimillionaire is morally reprehensible at worst, stupid at best, and when the finale of the show features the revelation that Mr. Moneybags is really a construction worker with an annual salary of $19,000, just a wee bit misogynistic. Also, isn't that false advertising? Or do those who participate in TV reality have no rights? Perhaps it's like the untamed West, subject to a certain amount of lawlessness.
Now, I'm not a TV critic, nor am I a cultural anthropologist, a sociologist or an entomologist.
I'm also not a television snob: I've watched plenty of tube, including hours of the exact same news over and over again on CNN, and two of the made-for-TV movies about Amy Fisher, the Long Island Lolita. I'd watch them again if I got bored enough.
Actually, I did sit through a few minutes of "Survivor" (before attempting to tear the flesh from my own face) and last year watched the season finale of "The Bachelor," engrossed and horrified at the same time. I couldn't look away, yet I vowed never to watch again.
But I'd begun to feel very, very alone in the world. (I have a nightmare in which everyone in the world is on TV except me, and I, the sole viewing audience member, have to use the remote whenever I wish to communicate with another human being.) So, I recently took a somewhat scattershot tour through the world of reality TV.
I watched old episodes of "The Bachelor," "Survivor," "Fear Factor" (the cockroach show), and episodes of the new shows "High School Reunion" (in which alumni of Oak Park-River Forest High School were brought together for their 10th reunion, in Hawaii), "The Surreal Life" (the B celebrities) and "Celebrity Mole Hawaii." I'm here to tell you that God gave us private houses without hidden cameras for a reason.
In public, we have an obligation to assert our better selves and leave the boring and cruel and cheesy and shallow and lewd rest at home.
While that sounds pretentious, all I mean to say is that when I am forced by circumstance to watch anyone necking in a hot tub, I'd like them to be doing it for larger reasons than an overabundance of free margaritas from television producers. I'm not asking for them to be Romeo and Juliet, but I'd like them to make me feel something other than pity or embarrassment. Is that so wrong?
In "The Surreal Life," for instance. While the vision of the down-on-his-luck rapper MC Hammer, who seems to be a good man, bunking with the tiny, helium voiced actor Emmanuel Lewis (from the show "Webster") may well be worthy of my pity, it's important to note that had the show never been created, that pity could have been directed toward a more worthy subject. "But these shows reveal human nature," a colleague countered, when I expressed dismay over the unsavory spectacle of "Joe Millionaire."
My response to that is: Oh, no, they don't.
They don't reveal the true nature of the participants, at least.
I realize that I'm probably not the first person to invoke the nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principal in this context.
In simplest terms, it says that merely observing a thing changes its path. Put a bunch of civilians who are dying to be famous in front of a camera, and they are going to act the way they think we want them to act. They're going to try to please us.
Which is why on "High School Reunion," the producers just went ahead and labeled each of the participants, "the nerd," "the flirt," "the loner," for example. At one point, "the bully" turns and speaks directly to the camera and asks, "Are my horns showing?"