The news (i.e. the stuff all around this part of the paper) can be exhausting.
Pick your source, any source, and you’ll see a culture defined by a variety of violence: Local newscasts serve shadowy figures on surveillance breaking into homes and cars; Twitter blazes with clashing mobs shot from phones in swinging fists; cable news sets up shop outside of windowless buildings full of immigrant children; news magazines replay disembodied voices on 911 calls. And woven through all of them runs the civil scourge of euphemism, reducing complex problems and human lives down to cruel abstractions.
One of the reasons we have “human interest” stories is because news is, in its ideal form, more concerned with facts than feelings. News is ultimately about what happens to humanity when it’s dehumanized.
The news is also everywhere. It calls to us from our living rooms and bedrooms, our palms and our pockets. It overwhelms the banks of the news cycle and floods our social media feeds. I can’t help but wonder what that does to us. Social media by itself has done a number on our regard for one another as actual people. But the water in which we’re currently boiling — a climate of nonstop news, in which people are rendered as problems — seems to me far more harmful.
It’s human nature to keep our balance, so our steady diet of dehumanized news is matched only by our intake of its empty-calorie entertainment counterpart, “reality” TV — which sweetens and salts all of those aspects of humanity with which the news is unconcerned.
So we have makeover shows and dating shows and baking shows and kids baking shows, and singing shows, and investing shows, and intervention shows, and modeling shows, and drag queen shows, and pawn shop shows, and shows about being naked in the jungle. We see Jenny, 34, a banker from Tulsa, eating grubs in the jungle and crying. We see the Fab Five group-hugging a freshly shorn Republican with nicer loafers. We hear another rendition of “Hallelujah” that makes every one of the judges cry. The news is wrong, reality TV assures us. We’re not so bad.
Until, that is, we watch too much reality TV.
This week’s hot new study came from the London School of Economics, and thanks to the magic of Web headlines (“New Study Says Watching The Kardashians Actually Makes You A Worse Person,” read one) it turned swiftly into a highly shareable indictment of reality TV and its poster children.
Its reasoning was simple: “If there is more emphasis on materialism as a way to be happy,” said author Rodolfo Leyva, “this makes us more inclined to be selfish and anti-social, and therefore unsympathetic to people less fortunate.” Even what he called “momentary exposure” was enough to induce a chill in compassion.
If the Real Housewives have this much effect on how we view one another, I shudder to think what reality TV’s recent twin obsessions of dominance and humiliation will do to us.
On one side of the screen, physical competition shows like NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” Sylvester Stallone’s Netflix series “Ultimate Beastmaster,” “Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge” on CMT, Seth Rogen’s planned revival of “American Gladiators,” and Dwayne Johnson’s forthcoming “The Titan Games ” seem to be about some of the best aspects of our shared humanity.
“Shattering expectations. Unlocking potential. Succeeding in ways no one thought was possible,” says Johnson in the midst of some serious-looking cable flyes in the pep-talk preview clip for “Titans.” “I’m not talking about professional athletes. I’m talking about you.”
But on the other side of the screen, for the average “you” or me on the sofa, watching contestants deliver long-overdue blows against adversity often just feels like watching people breaking bones, or glorified slapstick. Does watching two men fight in the dirt over a rope until one of their shoulders pops on “Broken Skull” inspire me to fight harder for my own proverbial ropes? Did watching some lady bounce face-first off a platform into a tank of water on “Beastmaster” send me face-first into my own challenges? That would be the idea, but those would be no’s.)
So what appetite is being fed here?
The forthcoming Fox series “Mental Samurai,” produced by Rob Lowe, is described as an “obstacle course for the mind,” pitting players against a range of trivia questions (long pause) while also getting whipped around at high speeds in “a specially designed capsule that is capable of rotating 360 degrees.”
On CBS, the sleepy fishtank of “Big Brother” is followed by the controlled chaos of “TKO: Total Knock Out,” an obstacle course enhanced by fellow competitors flinging projectiles at one another. The object is to win, but the point — just as it was on formative impossible-obstacle shows like the sadistic import “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge” — is to faceplant and make the audience share a laugh and a grimace.
And last year, Netflix ordered a “Jackass”-meets-”Wipeout” concept with working titles that have swung between “Chicken” and “Flinch.” While the details are still being hammered out, the point will be suffering for laughs. According to Deadline, “A number of brave and crazy contestants attempt to withstand pain and discomfort in a series of hilarious games designed to make them scared,” while “three celebrity hosts bet on which contestant can withstand the most pain.”
Should we be concerned that hurting each other is trending? That dehumanization is rebranding as entertainment? We may roll our eyes at reality TV — confusing its emptiness for harmlessness and that harmlessness as an antidote for the news — but we’re still gazing at our distorted reflections within it every night. Who is it showing us? And will we believe what we see?Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.