Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Decadence Perfected - Redux

I am reposting this older piece I wrote a few months ago. I admit it...I got sucked into "The Bachelorette" and was once again left angry and in disbelief. I felt compassion for DeAnna when she got snubbed by Brad Womack on The Bachelor. I felt she was real, she was invested, and she spoke her mind like a mutha. So I was thrilled when she got the opportunity to do it herself, and this time...to do it right. A person like DeAnna would insightfully choose someone that she could not only fall in love with, but loved her in return. He would be able to keep her safe, secure, and financially stable. Right? Freaking WRONG! She chose the "pro" snowboarder that showed up the first night with pink shoelaces and a sequined jacket. Teaching boarding lessons and shredding the farm league boarding circuit will maybe work for, oh, 10 more years...max. But then what? How will "brah" be able to support her after that?

DeAnna...terrible choice. Good luck in your failure of a future.

Below is my original post comparing modern-day reality TV to the bloody arena battles of ancient Rome.

A few years ago I was headed to New Orleans for a conference. My father warned me about the city, particularly Bourbon Street, by telling me “there they have ‘decadence perfected.’” He was absolutely right of course. I hadn’t taken two steps on Bourbon before I saw two of the nastiest, funkiest topless hippie-women imaginable. They had enough multi-colored beads partially covering their nasty sagginess to make Mr. T jealous. Things didn’t get much better as I walked down the famous strip. There was a unique aroma in the air; a type of mixture of vomit, urine, stale alcohol, and bread pudding. And more nakedness. This truly was a decadent city. However, when evaluating decadent civilization, the mother ship of all wanton societies is absolutely Ancient Rome.

Rome was a military power, conquering country after country until its presence spread over most of Eurasia. Its political system was also quite advanced. Much of our government structure today is based on what was employed in ancient Rome. As the major force in the world, Rome and its citizens enjoyed a wide variety of indulgences. Abundant drink and sexual deviance. The Romans also enjoyed “sport”. Contests of strength and survival carried out in numerous arenas throughout the city and country. The Coliseum is obviously the most famous staging point for such contests. Roman men, women, and children congregated within its walls to watch men fight each other to the bloody death. The bottom of The Coliseum could be filled with water and full naval battles would be carried out to the delight of the crowd. And the demise of the losing ship. Pagan Romans would cheer and jeer as Christians were fed to lions. Rome was a decadent society and the majority of its citizens were filthy, blood-crazed fans of misery and death.

The Governator, Arnie Schwarzenegger, starred in a 1987 film called “The Running Man.” The film was set in the year 2019 and the premise was based on criminals that were forced to play a televised game of life and death. People would be glued to their television sets to watch their heroes, “stalkers”, chase the criminals through a part of Los Angeles that had been ravaged by an earthquake and subsequently abandoned. The stalkers are equipped with all sorts of savage weaponry with one goal in mind…kill the runners. A variety of elaborate puzzles, games, and obstacles were placed in front of the runners. In each instance a runner would face off with a stalker and the game would commence. One would live, the other would die. Naturally, Arnie kicks the living hell out of all the stalkers, single-handedly takes on the entire studio responsible for the show, and waxes the show’s host (played by a surprisingly entertaining Richard Dawson.) It sounds brutal, but by far the most disturbing thing for me in the film was the way the public ate it up. The studio audience would grin and cheer in elation any time a runner was brutally killed by a stalker. Entire families would gather around the television with bowls of popcorn and TV dinners to watch human beings die.

Sadly, this seemingly bizarre story is not far off from reality today. The most obvious parallel is to American Gladiators. Really, the only difference between Arnold’s film and AG is the substitution of chainsaws for padded sticks. We still love to watch those runners get massacred by the gladiators. Even if they don’t die. However, I think the most appropriate parallel to be drawn to ancient Rome’s twisted entertainment would be today’s Reality TV craze. Some are interesting and even inspiring, ala The Biggest Loser. But some are downright savage:

The Bachelor (ABC) – Why on earth would two dozen gorgeous, talented women want to be filmed having their hearts broken by a perfect stranger in front of millions of viewers? And furthermore, how is it possible that anyone could fall in love in that setting? First off, I can’t understand why these rich, successful, hunky bachelors can’t manage to meet women. I mean really…these thoroughbreds can’t find love conventionally while 3-legged mules like me can? And what’s the deal with the ladies?! They are gorgeous, knockouts. Most are wildly successful. And they have to go on national television to find an eligible man?! And the setting is all wrong. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can misunderstand an emotion as odd as love when being flown by helicopter to a beachside lobster dinner on a private island in the Caribbean. The ladies inevitably compromise themselves, “fall in love”, and leave bawling in a limo. While we watch them fall apart. And on this last season, The Bachelor didn’t even have the decency to pick a woman. He led them all on and at the end of the show decided he didn’t like any of them. He got to rock steady with 25 knockouts and leave without having to commit to anything.

Wife Swap (ABC) – Objectively this sounds like a great idea. To show families how much they love their wives/mothers, they trade with another family’s wife/mother for two weeks. For the first week the wife has to live the same lifestyle as the woman she replaces. For the second week she gets to implement her own rules and style. The problem here is that the network sends these women into hellish situations that no human being should have to endure. They have a pagan coven witch swap with a born again Christian zealot fanatic. A vegetarian health-crazed personal trainer swaps with a 400 lb. soap opera slob. A racist white woman trades places with an NAACP activist. These are NOT healthy situations and the idea is certainly not to help families grow closer. It is to entertain the masses by watching a lunatic invoke the name of the almighty to cast evil spirits out of bewildered children.

Survivor (CBS) – I love this show. But season after season we watch people lie, cheat, steal, and deceive to play a game. The million dollar prize essentially forces people to be what they hate.

American Idol (FOX) – Another personal favorite. But we laugh while young people with false understandings of their talent flounder and fail on national television. Just to have some pompous Brit tell them they are worthless. This show makes someone’s dream come true, but crushes countless other dreams on the way.

The Moment of Truth (FOX) – The most disturbing show on television. Contestants strap up to polygraph machines and answer simple yes/no questions about themselves. Each correct answer moves closer to $500,000 with breaks at $25k, $100k, and $250k. Simple, no? Well, try answering a question like “do fat people repulse you” while your obese loved one watches from the audience. If you knew there was no chance of being caught, would you cheat on your wife?” “Have you ever thrown up to make yourself thinner?” These are examples of questions asked. I think it is ruthless and cold. Yet we lap it up like parched puppies.

Many people subscribe to the concept of perception being reality. We, the viewers, understand that Girl 22 cannot truly be in love with Bachelor 09. It's obvious. However, Girl 22 clearly BELIEVES that she is. Therefore, when she is sent packing after giving so much of herself, she suffers from a broken heart. Anyone that has truly suffered from a broken heart understands that it is a tangible physical pain. Girl 22 is suffering. And we, the American public, clear our schedules of more productive activities so we can watch Girl 22 suffer. Idol contestants honestly believe they have the ability to sing. I've even heard one claim that her voice was a gift from God. In reality she sounded like a donkey bleeding to death in a metal barn. The judges are quick to laugh and berate, and the donkey leaves the show with a shattered soul. Anyone that has had a dream...a heart's desire, and has seen that dream crushed, understands the pain the donkey is going through. Yet we gather to watch it and discuss it at work the following day.

What is the motivating force behind contestants opening themselves up to this torture? Money. Survivor contestants starve themselves and abandon their families for months at a time for the outside chance of winning a million dollars. My 2nd favorite survivor of all time is Rupert Boneham (my all time favorite is Greg from season 1.) Rupert came across as a humble, emotional, sensitive, STRONG man whose goal was to win money for his family and his foundation to help troubled kids. I actually met Rupert at the Atlanta airport. He was sitting off to the side totally unbothered by the public. People were whispering and pointing of course, but I was the only one that actually went over to him. "Rupert, I'd like to shake your hand. You did a fantastic job and my family loved watching you." He gave his big toothy pirate smile and signed my notebook with a sharpie he kept in a holster. He was on his way to talk with a video game company that wanted to develop a game around his character. His comment...."I'll talk to anyone that'll pay me." Interesting answer. Even after the show, after winning a million bucks, Rupert was still all about the benjamins. I have to wonder if these shows permanently change people. Clearly this is the case with The Moment of Truth. Contestant after contestant willingly ruins his life by confessing unimaginable truths just to win some money. Some things are better left unsaid. And unknown.

I believe reality television has revolutionized entertainment, but not for the better. There are some great shows like The Biggest Loser, Supernanny, and Dancing With the Stars. But the vast majority simply puts human misery on public display. Today’s reality TV may not show people’s lives being lost, but it openly shows people’s souls being crushed. And that just might be the greater evil.


Snyder-mom said...

Wow! I thought I would stop by to take a quick read and was really surprised to find what deep thinker you are. Your wheels must be turning 24/7. Have you always had so much on your mind?

Lisa :)

Mandy said...

THIS is why I REFUSE to watch reality TV, unless it's DWTS or SYTYCD (was that right?) Those are legitimately good shows. Okay, and I watch the last few weeks of Idol, but that's it!

Sister said...

This original post was one of my favorites of yours. The truth of it is so wonderfully disturbing. I also found myself sickened by the bachelorette the other night. To look into that guys face while he tried not to break into tears broke my heart...but then I remembered that he knew PRECISELY what he was signing on for. It is hard to feel bad for someone who knowingly makes themselves vulnerable in front of millions of people to make a buck, or meet a chick. No more sympathy here.

Tyler said...

The sad thing, sis, is that this time I believed it. I bought into the possibility because Jason was for real. A guy that had real true motivations for finding someone...a mother for his kid. So I saw the jaded, hurt, clearly mature woman fitting with the jaded, hurt, clearly mature/responsible/stable man. Her choosing "brah" tore me from my optimism-induced stupor and made me realize that it's all concocted for entertainment. "Why did you let me get down on my knee?" Because the freaking producers WANTED you to you dumb@$$. Your pain is our pleasure, and their paycheck.