Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

January 17, 2014

Reality shows teaching bad lessons

— — I am starting to think we can blame the end of civilization, in part, on MTV’s “The Real World,” Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” and a bunch of people voting each other off a remote island. I think the grown-ups-acting-like-middle-school mean girls in the New Jersey governor’s office were schooled in professionalism and public administration by reality TV stars.

I admit it — I was a big fan of early seasons of “The Apprentice,” catching every episode. Then I tired of the vitriolic hysterics and the overheated verbal abuse. One of the original competitors was Omarosa, the Queen Bee everyone loved to hate. She was even welcomed back for both a celebrity edition and all-star edition of the show so we could love hating her some more. But I’d long ago grown weary of adults engaging with each other like caged animals and didn’t watch.

I was also a regular viewer of the first few seasons of “Survivor.” It was new and fresh. No one had done this kind of thing yet — being stuck together in remote environs — except on “Gilligan’s Island.” However, the castaways didn’t get to vote someone off at the end of each week. If they could, I’m sure the original TV bully, the Skipper, would’ve been the first one ousted — unless he allied himself with the Professor and Mary Ann. Watching couch potatoes like me try to become the last survivor by using brain and brawn was interesting but then it became a high school popularity test and I, again, grew weary.

I’ve never watched MTV’s “The Real World” but, unbelievably, it’s in its 29th season. First broadcast in 1992, “The Real World” has been called a “social experiment ... that turned into a phenomenon that changed the face of television forever.” Inspired by the very first reality show, PBS’s 1973 documentary series “An American Family,” producers of “The Real World” moved complete strangers into a home together, focused the lens and let the action evolve. It resulted in some original, dramatic and surprisingly relevant developments as people had to practice compromise and tolerance. More than two decades later, critics say the latest version of “The Real World” has devolved into one huge house party without any depth or relevancy.

I remember thinking that adolescent relational aggression became more of an issue after these TV shows and their like filled broadcast and cable channels. Teens were watching adults act out, bully and abuse, lie and manipulate. And then they watched those adults win the big prize at the end of the season, which taught the fine lesson that bullying, lying and manipulation could bring you fame and fortune, too!

But this behavior is moving beyond the middle school gym or the high school cafeteria. People are bullying in the board room and getting cattier in the cubicle. They are, apparently, playing mean tricks on entire cities that put the citizens at serious risk. You don’t like my boss? I’ll close a lane on a bridge and shut down your city. Na-na na-na boo-boo!

Governor Chris Christie claims he didn’t know anything about the bridge lane closure but says he is ultimately responsible for his staff’s traffic jam shenanigans. I was glad to hear him say he was “embarrassed” by his staff’s behavior. That is an underrated and underused emotion. I only wish people appearing on these unreal reality shows knew what that felt like or could identify it when they watch themselves.

Embarrassment, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the state of feeling foolish in front of others,” usually makes one change one’s behavior because no one wants to feel the fool. They may choose to act the fool, especially if one is a morning talk show host or a featured player on “Saturday Night Live,” but no one wants to truly feel like a fool.

When a person becomes uncomfortable with something he or she did, they usually resolve not to do it again. They resolve to use better judgment next time. They resolve to behave better. That means not posting that picture (Kim and Kanye), not throwing that table (Real Housewife of New Jersey) or not getting falling-down drunk (almost everyone on every reality show).

Folks on reality shows probably deserve to be embarrassed. But because we are still watching their inane shows and buying the magazine covers featuring them (and, I’m embarrassed to say, I do mean “we”), they have instead an embarrassment of riches rather than the embarrassment they deserve.

I thought this reality TV trend would eventually end. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Reality TV is still relatively cheap to produce, draws big ratings and grabs headlines when its stars make controversial comments (cue the duck call.) So it doesn’t seem reality TV is going anywhere soon.

But we the viewers can go somewhere — to another channel. Or we can regularly use reality TV stars as good role models of very bad behavior and we can resolve to never be embarrassed like that ourselves in real life.

 Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.

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