Saturday, November 28, 2009

Has Superficiality Reached It’s Zenith Yet?

John Ramsey Miller

During my first six decades of life, I have learned know a lot about self-indulgence, image, illusion and self-delusion, and I’ve been trying to live a more honest, simpler, and more meaningful existence. I don’t mind telling you I am stunned and amazed by what I see on television. In the name of research I have been watching a few "reality" shows instead of my usual list of educational- purposes-only television shows: the CSIs, Law & Order, and its numerous spinoffs, Two and A Half Men, Big Bang Theory, and I started watching The Housewives of Orange County, New York City, and Atlanta, Bridezillas, Million-Dollar Deal, Flipping Out, and a couple whose names I can’t even recall. Anderson Cooper said he never misses Bridezillas, and I suspect a lot of otherwise serious people watch at least some of these reality shows. I have never watched So You Think You Can Be a Star, You Can Dance With the Stars, The Great Race for a Survivor, and Watch Ozzie Toddle and Drool. I think there may be substance to others, but I couldn’t say for sure. I only watch American Idol as long as they have the “unfortunate” talent performing. In fact I would watch “American Idol, The Painful Miserable Fail Tapes.”

A populace’s preoccupation with the superficial is a sure sign of a civilization in decline, (like we need another warning sign) and it appears that ours is on a super-slide toward an apocalyptical Mad Max existence. At that point the reality shows will take on a more life-and-death tone. Shooting Guns To Make The Stars Dance, Cooking Road Kill, and Beevis & Butthead re-runs. We’d still have Bridezillas, but each segment will end with the offensive and self-absorbed brides being bitch-slapped by show fans. If the delusional, hissy-fit-throwing brides I saw on that TV show had actual political power to go with an over-inflated self-importance they’d be what we call elected representatives.

What gets me is how superficial the lives of the people on these shows can be, and that watching it is funny, but it is also terribly sad. Who exactly are the producers catering to? The idea that there is such a demand for this kind of reality programming that targets unhappy, cloying, unbalanced, and emotionally cripple people is frightening. Yes, I laugh at the Housewives who spend their days sipping wine, attending daily parties and luncheons, building a delusional wall, purchasing clothes and accessories, gossiping, and biting each other’s backs. Lord, it’s a hell of a mess. And, I say this guiltily; it’s utterly fascinating. I think that watching other people behaving badly helps us feel better about ourselves, and superior to those who are mistreating their maids of honor, or buying twenty thousand dollar watches to toss in a drawer after they’ve worn them once or twice. I have to admit I feel dirty after watching most of these shows, but I'm giggling while I shower.

It makes you wonder what the American dream has become, what these people imagine it to be, or are the producers merely capturing the worst moments, perhaps egging the participants on to cater to the worst in each of us? And why we are more fascinated with the false reality shows on TV than what is happening in the actual world. Do we want to be treated like children after we’re grown, or do we want to be grownups and act like mature individuals and take responsibility for our actions? The worst is the thought that my own reality show would be so boring that nobody could watch it.


  1. Amen, John. More evidence of the USA's intellectual decline is to watch television "news" these days. In the evening, Katie, or Charlie or Brian give us maybe seven minutes of "news" (driven by 7-second sound bites), followed by gushing features on pop-news that are really thinly-veiled commercials for a show that will air later on their networks.

    Meanwhile, newspapers are imploding, and alternative networks--the agenda-driven Fox & MSNBC, et. al.--thrive by twisting the news to fit the preferences of their respective audiences. The result: steadily declining knowledge about important issues.

    But hey. As long as we're entertained, who needs to be burdened with, you know, knowledge and stuff?

    John Gilstrap

  2. I'll admit that my guilty pleasure is Project Runway--can't get enough of watching the designers sweat through challenges like makes evening gowns out of corn husks.

    That said, I saw one show that really disturbed the other day. It was some kind of "play a prank on someone" show, and the prankee was told to listen while a "competitor" on the other side of the curtain endured some kind of pain that was being inflicted. She did did nothing to protest while the screams continued. It was all a setup, but it reminded me of those psychological experiments they did years ago where the subject is asked to inflict pain on someone else by turning a dial. Most people turned the dial when told to do so by an "authority" figure wearing a medical coat. In the case of the TV show, the scenario was played as a joke, but the underlying message made me wonder if we're becoming a nation of sociopaths.

  3. I love the post-apoc reality shows! A few years ago on my fav forum when Survivor was making it big I gave my pitch for a new show.

    It's called "RAFT."

    Ten people are set adrift in a giant raft. They have plenty of water, but no food. Once a week they take a vote. The loser has the choice of jumping overboard and trying his hand with the sharks, or being clubbed and eaten raw by the remaining contestants . . .

    If you haven't read Stephen King's novella "Running Man" I highly recommend it.

    Has superficiality reached its zenith (or nadir)? Probably not. My own personal guilty pleasures are the E! network pseudo-reality shows featuring has-been celebs and the psycho-crazed fans who still remember them (ie. "Rock of Love").

    Otherwise, give me History Channel and A&E.

    However, in a itty-bitty-teeny-little bit of defense of mindless reality entertainment.

    Last week my husband was in a bad accident. He is in ICU with a dozen other folks. He's stable, but on the first baby step of a very long road home. The waiting room is a pretty grim place, the TV mostly forgotten in the corner.

    Out of the blue the other evening his sister asked everyone if she could put on 'Dancing With The Stars.' It was the finale and she wanted to see if Donny Osmond would win.

    We all kind of rolled our eyes and said "sure" before sinking back into our own individual grief.

    However, over the next two hours, a tiny bit of magic happened. One by one, all of us, strangers bound only by our pain, started watching the show and commenting on the performances. Laughter crept in and by the end, everyone had a favorite they were rooting for.

    For two hours, some network canned silliness distracted us from the black cloud of pain and death just on the other side of the wall and that bleak waiting room became a little oasis of normalcy. The washed up has-beens with their lead-footed tangoing to 1980s soft rock did their job, they entertained us. That has value, even if just for a minute.


  4. Terri, Sorry about your husband's accident, and I'll include him in my prayers if you'll send me his name ( can be more specific although I believe God will know who I mean when I say Terri's husband. Strangers becoming close over the TV is wonderful, and as long as you are entertained the choice of subject matter is irrelevant.

    Today I am cutting fire wood and splitting it and I'm going to spread new sawdust in the coops, and make sure the grand daughter doesn't too close to the action. All in all my lower back would rather I'd been watching TV.

  5. John - thank you for your kind words and Noah will appreciate your prayers. Blogs like this are my lifeline to normalcy and sanity. Keep em coming!

    I have read your post several times because it is very amusing. I am liking the possibility of a reality competition where the winner gets to bitch-slap Bridezilla. The permutations are endless!

  6. Six years ago my wife went through a virulent form of fast-growing invasive breast cancer 16 lymph nodes involved and I spent a lot of time at her side in hospitals and chemo suites and alone in chapels and she's still free of it. I prayed myself blue in the face, and I am sure it helped. I guess it isn't as popular today to believe in something above politicians, but I can't help but be convinced that something outside Washington actually does care and has open ears and a big heart.

    So God bless you and Noah, and I'm going to say a few words tonight for his speedy recovery.

  7. As my mom always said, "Rome is burning-might as well bring marshmallows." And if ever there was a marshmallow, it's Project Runway- still, I'm with you, Kathryn-never miss an episode. I think Terri pinpoints the reason why (Terri, so sorry to hear about your husband-I hope his condition improves quickly). Sometimes we just need to shut off and lose ourselves in inanity. There is something to be said for that.
    Hey, I write thrillers for a living- I'm not suffering under the impression that there's high art lurking somewhere in my work. But I recently received a letter from someone whose husband recently passed away. He'd won one of my books in a contest and became a fan. She was reading one of my books to him while he was in hospice, and said it provided a needed respite during a difficult time for both of them. And really, that's the nicest thing anyone ever said about one of my books-it did its job and took them away from their troubles for awhile. Which is precisely what some of these shows do.
    And hey, So You Think You Can Dance actually had American Ballet Theater performing the other night. Ballet. On prime time- and on Fox, no less. As a former dancer, that was a heck of a thing to see- and there wasn't anything superficial about it.