March 14, 2018

Human misery for fun and profit

You're going to have to trust me on this when I tell you that I’ve never, ever watched an episode of ABC’s The Bachelor, nor is it likely that I ever will. In fact, there seems little reason for someone writing about classic TV to mention it at all, other than to speculate on what the bastard offspring of The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game might look like, though I’ve always thought Chuck Barris would have had more class than to come up with something like The Bachelor. 

Nevertheless, there’s a local angle to this most recent season in that one of the finalists involved is apparently from Minnesota, and the finale was apparently so dramatic that it’s been difficult in the last couple of days to avoid the headlines.

A quick recap: this season’s Bachelor, Arie Luyendyk Jr.*, had narrowed his choices down to two: Becca (the aforementioned Minnesotan) and Lauren. We are to understand that he was hopelessly in love with each of them, despite having spent less time with them than the average person might take to buy a pair of shoes. In the end, he chose Becca. However, he apparently began having second thoughts almost immediately, and contacted Lauren to see if she would be willing to give it another shot – while at the same time house-hunting with Becca, in case Lauren’s answer was no. Lauren agreed that yes, she was willing to give him a second chance, whereupon he broke things off with Becca – and here is the key part – blindsiding her while the cameras were running and she was preparing to talk with him about their future life together.

*Son of Arie Luyendyk Sr., famed racing driver and two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Arie Jr., a washout as a racer himself, was hilariously referred to by one wag as "Fail Earnhardt, Jr."

As I understand it, the confrontation was riveting, in a morbid sort of way, with the Bachelor staff using a split-screen to air the unedited footage. On one side we had Arie, trying to explain his decision in a way that was not quite the “You deserve someone better than me” schtick that we’re accustomed to, but still highlighted his desire to be loved by someone whose life he had just crushed; on the other side sat Becca, reacting with a fairly impressive amount of poise for someone who’s just been ambushed and humiliated on national television, having the rug pulled out from under her while being asked not only to understand her now ex-fiancée’s decision, but to actually bestow upon him her forgiveness and blessing. The fact that she didn’t pick up the nearest sharp-pointed instrument she could lay her hands on and drive it like a stake through his heart was admirable, although it did deprive the viewing audience of the opportunity to see whether the production crew would have intervened to prevent an on-air murder, or that they might have figured that this truly was real-life TV, warts and gushing blood and all. For a split screen consisting of Becca weeping while Arie is being wheeled out by paramedics, murmuring all the while, “this is so amazing.”

There’s a lot to ridicule in all this, but it would be wrong to simply dismiss The Bachelor, and its reality counterparts, as so much programming designed to prove correct P.T. Barnum’s axiom about there being a sucker born every minute. To do so would be to forget that this was not scripted drama, that these were real people acting out their actual (however unreal) lives on television, and that we were complicit in the whole thing.

As Juliet Litman put it in a very perceptive article at The Ringer, the whole premise of a show like The Bachelor is “the belief that watching heartbreak and disappointment is fun for the uninvolved audience at home.” In order to rationalize our behavior, we remind ourselves that, after all, everyone involved on programs like this know what they’re getting themselves into. Nobody forced them at gunpoint to take part in it, and the inference is that they’re freely exchanging the possibility of losing their human dignity in return for fame and fortune, and the longshot chance of future happiness. It’s about as close as one can get these days to saying of them that “She (or he) asked for it,” without immediately being condemned as suffering from some type of -phobia.

But did they? Does anybody really “ask” for something like this? We may find ourselves in situations where we say that we understand the risks involved, but how many of us actually do? Unless we’re police officers or soldiers, people who truly understand that death can visit them at any moment, few of us would probably agree that we signed up for the possibility, however remote, that something like this could actually happen. To us.

In watching a drama like that on The Bachelor unfold for our entertainment, writes Litman, “We became voyeurs much like the producers and editors who piece together footage to weave a coherent story each season. By watching year after year and demanding that [host Chris] Harrison’s promise that ‘this is the most dramatic season of The Bachelor yet’ eventually come true, the audience was just as complicit in stabbing Becca in the back as the cameras ran.” Arie may have been the villain of the piece but “The split-screen effect implicated the audience as accessories to the Bachelor crime.”

◊ ◊ ◊

What is perhaps most depressing about this is the lesson that can be taken from it. While The Bachelor finale may have been grotesque, it was also, as Litman writes, “the best television episode of the year so far, and it was in part because Becca was ambushed.” Viewers in the know were aware of Arie’s switcheroo, thanks to an article in Us Weekly, so the final outcome was no real surprise. It was the way it was aired, and the way we reacted to it, that is the real story. Litman reminds us that “at the heart of this novel and successful TV experiment lies living people with real emotions. Becca’s pain and shock was authentic.” Yes, there are other ways in which the show could have been presented, but for viewers “the TV experience would not have been as compelling.” In other words, the likely lesson that ABC will have learned is not about human dignity, but that surprise revelations, broadcast in such a way as to maximize the sight of naked pain and shock for public consumption, make for successful television.

So we can probably look forward to more scenes like this in the future, although the encore is rarely as successful as the original; the law of diminishing returns suggests that before too long the producers will have to come up with something even more spectacular and gut-wrenching to keep the momentum going. Perhaps we may see that stake through the heart yet.

This brings to mind that article by Erwin D. Canham from last week’s TV Guide, written in 1960, in which Canham wrote of television as a vehicle capable of building up "new standards of life and citizenship," that it was the medium uniquely equipped to help answer the doubts that Americans increasingly had when they looked at themselves in the mirror. “They are asking whether our national standards and values are as sound and true as they should be, or whether too many of them have become shoddy and specious."

The question in his mind was not whether or not television could do this, but whether or not it would. Canham warned that “television must not become the opium of the people,” held hostage to pure entertainment, that the minds of the viewers "must not be merely softened up under a salve of bland relaxation".

Today Canham would be saddened, though probably not surprised, to find that television has mostly failed in this respect; it was, after all, what he saw as the greatest challenge to the medium. What I think would truly dismay him, however, is that those very tendencies which he felt America had to defend against in order to maintain “the true values of a good society” are precisely what television most glorifies today.

Doubtless a show like The Bachelor would have horrified him, but the everpresent drumbeat of programs that revel in excesses of materialism, sex, and violence rather than modesty and education; that celebrate darkness and nihilism rather than light and hope; that find humor in cruelty and crudity rather than gentleness and cleverness; all this would have confounded him. Yes, he might say, there is such a thing as Original Sin, but who in their right mind would want to celebrate programs like this? Who would want to freely choose to live in a world with this kind of entertainment? Are you trying to destroy yourselves and everything which you’ve built up over the centuries?

Erwin Canham and many like him felt that television had a role to play in helping create "a nation of mature decision makers." Imagine what he would feel if he could see the decisions that America’s broadcasters and viewers have made.  TV  

7 comments:

  1. Although the difference between Arie and Dale is that Arie failed to qualify in his Verizon Series start (he does administrative work for INDYCAR while also doing off-road racing with Robby Gordon's group, including racing off-road trucks in Australia at the Supercars weekend), while Dale successfully won majors (something that even mildly successful drivers such as Ricky Rudd and triple champion Tony Stewart never won what T. Wayne Robertson called the majors), did some sports car efforts for Chevrolet (including the infamous fire at Sonoma that affected his career, as did two concussions) and has won titles in lower tiers as both a driver and a front office, including fielding the second-tier titles of two current Hendrick drivers and winning Daytona in a dramatic finish between his drivers! (Is Dale Jr the next Joe Lombardi, in a strange way?)

    The correct spelling as I learned from my old colleagues, is L-U-Y-E-N-D-I-J-K. It makes you wonder if this was planned as a "scripted" idea to turn viewers into the next chapter of the franchise (the scorned woman is now The Bachelorette).

    There's another twist in the Earnhardt Jr analogy; Arie was first seen as a suitor for Emily Maynard, who is the mother of Josephine R. Hendrick (Joseph R. Hendrick III's granddaughter), in The Bachelorette. (Emily and Joseph R. Hendrick IV were in a relationship when the October 2004 plane crash took place on the way to Martinsville for the playoff race killed Joseph R. Hendrick IV.) Joseph R. Hendrick III is Dale Earnhardt Jr's business partner in both his auto dealerships in Florida and his championship winning race team.

    Oh the twisted tales of those reality shows. Now we know why the latest Dancing with the Stars has a short season -- ABC is doing extended The New American Idol shows on Mondays this month!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Barnum never said "a sucker born every minute." A competitor said he said that to demean Barnum. Barnum was not into putting down his audience just wanted to entertain them. I think that he would have disliked the Bachelor because it makes the audience look stupid. Who knows.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The Bachelor is one of the reasons I swore off of network television. I hate reality shows which like Mitchell I consider to be turning the American audience into a group of voyeurs. This is one reason I am a fan of the television of the 50's through the 70's. It was meant to enlighten and entertain. Not cater to our most basic instincts.

    George Everson

    ReplyDelete
  4. Programs like "Queen For A Day" were miserable enough in their day, as three housewives enumerated their miseries in a televised pity duel. "Beat the Clock" also provided no shortage of opportunities to embarrass oneself before a national audience (look at Dad trying to wriggle through a suspended girdle to win a few bucks!) But the reality television glut of the last two decades makes all of that look like child's play because so much of the networks' business models are based around reality programming. It brings in the ratings and costs so little to produce, especially when there's no shortage of people who are so eager to trade in their dignity, and you can make them do anything, no matter how embarrassing or dehumanizing, because they want their fifteen minutes on television and will happily settle for a few thousand bucks. (I won't even get into young Mr. Luyendyk trading on the family name and accomplishments in all this business.) And even when the audience knows it's being manipulated, it will still watch - which is perhaps the most astounding commentary of all.

    Back at the dawn of commercial television Pat Weaver articulated a vision of television creating "an aristocracy of the people" and that it would "make the average man the uncommon man." That was a beautiful and noble vision. But only a few years later Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly were getting ready for a "See It Now" broadcast in prime-time, and when they saw "The $64,000 Question" airing on a nearby monitor, Murrow said, "Any bets on how long we keep this time slot?"

    ReplyDelete
  5. Your posts are so refreshing – it’s like hearing someone else say, “Hey the emperor has no clothes on!” So much now is geared to appeal to people’s baser instincts. I wish thinkers like Canham were guiding programming today, instead of the people behind The Bachelor, Real Housewives, Game of Thrones and Riverdale. The worst of it is that so many are eating this trash up with a spoon. And praising it as well. Things don’t change unless people change them.

    ReplyDelete
  6. GAME OF THRONES and RIVERDALE are fictional creations, who make no claim on representing reality as we understand it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. That doesn't make them any less trashy. I wasn't confining the comment only to Reality TV but to any show that relies on seedy sensationalism.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!