With apologies to Karl Marx, “American Idol” is now the opiate of the masses. And frankly, I just don’t get it. We now escape from reality by watching reality TV? No one votes in elections anymore, but tens of millions will vote for Kelly Clarkson over whoever-the-guy-she-beat was?
When this reality craze started, it seemed harmless enough. It’s fun to root for the underdog with a shot at fame, the voyeur in us likes peeking into other people’s lives, and watching a group of people fight it out in the Amazon can be high comedy.
But now it’s all we have on TV, a medium that once brought us shows like “Roots,” Hill Street Blues,” and “The West Wing.” There are still some good shows, on cable at least, but the limited financial risk of a reality show has thrown an untold number of talented writers out on the street. And an unemployed writer is a dangerous thing; most of us usually aren’t very good at “normal” jobs.
The disease of reality TV goes deeper, however. Programs like “Extreme Makeover” teach a generation of children that they shouldn’t be happy with who they are or how they look. Rather, they should hope that their family and friends will love them enough to one day get them on a show that can remake them into Madison Avenue’s version of what’s beautiful.
“Big Brother” and “The Real World” put the idea in our heads that we should always know everything going on in our friends’ lives. Nothing is secret, and nothing is sacred. “Survivor” implied that cutthroat treachery is acceptable as long as you win (okay, that one’s not new, but most people today haven’t read The Prince).
Even the “good” reality shows have inherent drawbacks. Take “Extreme Makeover Home Edition.” It is certainly heartwarming to see someone in need have their home completely rebuilt, complete with every gizmo and gadget thrown in to make life better, all over a weekend while they’re at Disney World. Just don’t look at the state the rest of the neighborhood remains in. We feel so good having taken part, through our support of the show’s advertisers, that we feel no need to actually get off our couches and do something ourselves, be it working with Habitat for Humanity or Katrina restoration or helping out at our local food bank.
I realize that I’m raging against the tidal wave, and all I can really do to protest is not watch the shows. But since I’m not a Nielsen household, even that won’t make a difference. Thank God I still have PBS.