Myths. Legends. Fairy tales. Fables. Every culture in every era finds a way to express our human need to tell stories about ourselves. We rely on these stories to teach us why we do the things we do, to test the limits of our experience, and to reaffirm truths about human nature.

Reality TV, with its bevy of "real housewives," super-size families, and toddler beauty pageants, seems an unlikely place to find such truths, much less examples of virtue. And yet when you move beyond the visual excess and hyperbole, you will find the makings of classic morality tales. Bad characters come to disastrous ends. People struggle with unexpected hardship and either triumph or fail, depending on their strength of character. For some, hard work pays off. For others, failure is swift and cruel.

This commentary is abridged from the intro to this book

This commentary is abridged from the intro to this book

One could argue that reality TV started with The Dating Game. With "real people" and occasional celebrity appearances, the show reflected much about the state of romantic relationships and the relationship of ordinary people to celebrities. In a 1972 episode, a 14-year-old Michael Jackson was the bachelor. The three polite teen girls kept their answers short; no one spoke out of turn. When Jackson asked one girl to describe what she thought it would be like to share a kiss, she smiled sweetly and said, "Lovely."

It's hard to imagine this scene repeated today with Usher, the Jonas Brothers, or Justin Bieber—not because there are no sweet, innocent girls left, but because our relationships are filtered through the prism of popular culture. The girls courted by Jackson were behaving the way they were taught. Today, the girls would likely adopt a persona to better suit our more revealing and consciously therapeutic times. One-word answers would be replaced by long sentences of self-conscious observations about their excitement to be there, or concerns about their appearance.

Before reality TV, people could easily distinguish between real people and glamorous actors. No one's marriage really looked like Donna Reed's or Dick Van Dyke's or Bill Cosby's sitcom marriage. But now, we're not so sure. We can all be actors. Maybe that couple on the screen really does have amazing sex every night. Maybe they really do know how to balance work and family and throw great dinner parties and raise wonderful children. And before you know it, we're looking at our spouse and wondering, "Why can't we be like that, honey?"

No quick fixes

But reality TV can't relay the message that there are certain habits, qualities, and virtues that can only be mastered through repetition and extensive practice. Pop culture does children a disservice when it suggests that everything can happen overnight. The unpopular can become popular. The ugly can become beautiful. The single become attached. MTV's made, which helps teens "achieve their dreams" of becoming homecoming queen, losing weight, earning a spot in the school play—all projects that take months—can be viewed in one sitting. But the transformation seems instantaneous.

Adults consume a lot of pop culture too. Its immediacy and impermanence—its appetite for the newest thing—is part of the allure: yesterday's sitcom has-been is on today's Dancing with the Stars, and today's reality TV show contestant is tomorrow's co-host of The View. But impatience exacts a price: it erodes our ability to appreciate things that take time, whether that is developing a friendship or mastering a hobby.

Liberal-minded observers tend to praise the smashing of taboos and the anything-goes extremism of pop culture. Conservatives tend to tut-tut about declining standards and moral relativism. What is missing from the landscape of cultural criticism is a sustained and thoughtful discussion about what popular culture has to teach us about ourselves—our values, our interests, and our hopes for the future—and the ways in which we might reclaim some space in popular culture for a discussion of things such as virtue and character. Popular culture tackles the full spectrum of human experience: birth, death, love, marriage, hatred, failure, and redemption. Although commentary on popular culture often focuses on the multitude of settings where virtue and character are absent, might it also be possible to create cultural settings that could encourage things such as thrift, compassion, and self-reliance?

Abridged and adapted from Acculturated: 23 Savvy Writers Find Hidden Virtue in Reality TV, Chick Lit, Video Games, and Other Pillars of Pop Culture (Templeton Press). Used by permission. More: