Entertained by the Fall

Culture | New game shows and reality programming let us get our kicks by watching people get hurt

Issue: "Taking on the thugs," Nov. 6, 1999

The latest game show from Fox is called Greed. It will feature family members betraying each other for money. If it becomes a hit, maybe we can see sequels based on the other Deadly Sins: Anger (but we already have WWF histrionics); Gluttony (but we already have the Food Channel); Envy (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous reruns?); Lust (Ally McBeal every night?); Pride (the elections are coming up); Sloth (what are we watching TV for, anyway?). Actually, today's TV aesthetic is already largely based on the concept of sin as entertainment. CBS, in the meantime, is working on an even more high-concept game show. For Survivor, 16 prescreened volunteers will be marooned for seven weeks on a desert island near Borneo. Their struggle for survival will be taped 24 hours a day, later to be edited down to 13 one-hour programs. In the words of CBS's press release, the contestants "will be forced to band together and carve out a new existence, find food, build shelter and create an island society. But there will be only one survivor." This is because the game is designed for people to turn on each other. Periodically, the group will vote on one member to send away. Week by week, the group will get smaller, as individuals who don't pull their weight or who are unpopular with the others get "exiled." The last one standing wins $1 million. The point of these shows seems to be to reward those who most display the effects of the Fall. In a sense, all dramatic literature is about sin--what else would we expect in any honest depiction of human nature? The key is, what's the attitude portrayed about the sin? Does it make us want to do it, or make us want to avoid it? When Chaucer wrote about greed in The Pardoner's Tale, he showed how the lust for gold turns friends against each other-and breeds hypocrisy in the indulgence-peddling preacher, who preaches against greed so that people will give him their money. The novelist Frank Norris, a century ago, depicted a man so greedy that he died in the desert rather than let go of the gold that was weighing him down. This new game show will also show what people will do for money, but at the expense of real people who are being morally degraded. Most desert island survival tales-such as Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Shakespeare's The Tempest-are about people banding together, about loneliness giving way to joy at finding another human being, about ingenuity and mutual support. Even Gilligan's Island featured cooperation. This new game show, on the other hand, sets up an artificial Lord of the Flies. The issue isn't just that these shows cause other people to sin. They are causing viewers to sin by taking pleasure in other people's misfortune. A local station in Montgomery, Ala., is scoring a ratings victory against the national networks with MPD: The Television Series, which consists of videos of city police officers working cases and making arrests. "Odds are," promises the show's producer, "if you watch long enough, someone you know from high school or work will be arrested." True, such a show might bring back the shame from community disapproval that once made people too embarrassed to misbehave. But the main appeal seems to be to that vicious streak in each of us that loves juicy gossip. All of these shows are in the relatively new genre of "reality programming." Fox pioneered the genre with Cops, but it has a disadvantage: We don't usually know the people they are busting. Fox went further with shows like When Animal Attacks, showing people getting mauled, and The World's Worst Car Crashes. Again, the pleasure comes from watching people get hurt. Modernists used to make fiction that imitated real life. What we have today is real life imitating fiction. The Cops-type shows are edited to highlight chase scenes, fights, and gun play--just like fictional cop shows. MTV's The Real World, which sets up attractive young people to live together in a cool house under the camera's eye, is edited into a soap opera. Meanwhile docudramas, daytime talk shows, professional wrestling, and-for all we know-the network news, totally confuse what is fictional and what is real. Moral education, says William Kirk Kilpatrick, has traditionally depended on stories. Young people are repulsed by the villains but admire the "good guys" and want to be like them. Tragedies were designed to create a catharsis of pity and fear-audience members felt compassion at the character's suffering (a salutary moral feeling), complicated by fear that they too will fall due to their own tragic flaws. Similarly, art used to be designed to elevate and inspire its audience, through the contemplation of beauty and reflection upon the work's meaning. Today's art, though, is often self-consciously calculated to degrade its viewers. The problem with today's entertainment goes beyond sex and violence. As always, it is the meaning of the program, and its effect, that matters most. And this is something that cannot be solved by a V-chip.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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