It's Thanksgiving night 2005, and millions of American eyes strain toward the TV to watch a football game? A Waltons reunion show? Some Capraesque tale trying valiantly to return us to our moral roots?
Try Survivor: Guatemala, first in its time slot and number ten for the week
in the Nielsen ratings, with an estimated 19 million viewers. From its opening footage of barely clad women crawling through mud to its ritualized closing line, "Gary, the tribe has spoken," it underscores with oomph the nature of our national moment, when cathedrals have morphed into malls and sanctuaries into screens.
We've lived with the current burst of reality TV for five years now. With approximately half of all American television shows falling into the genre, according to Nielsen Media Research, how much more reality can we take?
It's the law of the jungle that has grabbed us, curiously, here at the end of history. We thrill to shows like Survivor and The Apprentice as they, frothing with animosity, sex, and intrigue, dare virtue to intrude in any meaningful way. Call this the anti-community wing of reality TV. Here there are no adults, only overgrown kids doing whatever it takes to "have it all" (the supposed reward for The Apprentice's champion) or to win "immunity" (the weekly hope of Survivor contestants). Their conversations, taped for all the world to hear, reveal a remarkably banal form of moral poverty. "It's the Weaver-butts. They suck at driving," we hear one of the Amazing Racers declare, as families cavort around Utah competing in an elaborate scavenger hunt. "Marcushe's useless! He's a nuisance," an Apprentice contestant complains about one of his teammates.
This is immaturity by design. Reality TV's stock technique, the private aside to the camera, incites by intention the very opposite of Christian confession. It's not repentance of sin that takes place behind this curtain, but rather the mere unveiling of sinnot self-mortification, but self-inflation, or what an older, wiser generation termed "vainglory." And it is this, pitifully, that drives the competitors on.
If the anti-community reality shows make virtue impossible, the super-community shows make it inevitable. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that at a recent taping of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, footage of screaming crowds cheering on a family about to receive a new home was taped well before the family arrived, "as production crew members hopped up and down to stir the growing throng into a frenzy." Such is "reality."
NBC ventured in this direction this past fall with Three Wishes, featuring evangelical superstar Amy Grant as the emcee. Its premise was as simple as Santa Claus: The network comes to town and begins to entertain wishes, winnowing them quickly down to three. One week later, all kinds of corporate-sponsored miracles have taken place, including, so far, a costly surgery for a young girl with a fractured skull, a rent-free house in South Dakota for a hurricane-stricken family from New Orleans, a professional-quality football field for a high school in California, and even the reuniting of an adult adoptee with her birth mother.
The needy are fed and the deserving rewarded in the super-community shows. Great gifts are given by great folk. And the jungle is far, far away.
If only it were true.
The Danger of Self-Diminishment
The awful, beautiful complexity of human experienceincluding our own moment in timerequires richly textured rendering for true self-understanding. Without art of this quality, our inevitable misrepresentations of our experience end up diminishing us in our own eyes; we seem more shallow or simple or happy or wholesome than we truly are. And virtuethe realizing of our divinely designed moral shapebecomes just a mirage. Or it is simply forgotten.
A novel three years in the making, a painting slowly achieved after years of study, even a long-running television seriesthese may possibly possess the power to take us more deeply into the mysteries of the condition in which we find ourselves, and may, most crucially, cast a vision of what we might yet become. But "reality TV"? Its tacky melodrama, deus ex machina plots, unending musical manipulations, and pseudo-heroic corporate saviors only undercut what it pretends to be about. Instead of showing us our truest selves, it plays to our worst impulses and misperceptions, making, in the end, a spectacle of our inner lives. Like other forms of voyeurism, it actually diminishes our taste for reality.
There is a reality out there: grand, awful, mysterious, and threatening. The truth, though, is that we postmoderns usually want reality packaged for us. Keep it titillating. Keep it shallow. Keep it safe. But the God of life is neither titillating, nor shallow, nor safe. Nor is he captured well by the screen, big or small. The more we evade him and a lively participation in his world, the less real we become. That's a fate only a network could love.
Eric Miller is associate professor of history at Geneva College.
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Other CT articles on reality TV from our television page include:
Priest Idol | A Wheaton grad ends up on British reality TV. His mission: Save a dying church. (Nov. 14, 2005)
Amish in the City: Has Reality TV Gone too Far? | The author of The Amish: Why They Enchant Us discusses why a television show about Amish teens is inherently flawed, and why we're drawn to their 18th-century ways. (Jan. 21, 2004)
Christian Survivors Playing a Non-Christian Game | A former winner of the CBS reality show talks about the faith that led her to the game and how Christian ethics intersects with outwitting, outlasting, and outplaying the competition.
Books & Culture Corner: Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Would a Christian Bachelorette Be Different? | A panel of Christian singles discusses the proliferation of reality dating shows and the turn from seeking one-night stands to seeking spouses. (Feb. 19, 2003)
'Pastor John' Sees Himself As a Survivor on the Mount | The show's first clergyman discusses reality TV, playing the game with faith, and why he was the first voted out. (Oct. 02, 2002)
Reality Check | Television shows feature Christians in a race, on a trip, and in a prison. (April 23, 2002)
Is Reality TV Beyond Redemption? | CBS hooks viewers with new lowbrow programming. (Aug. 2, 2000)
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