What do you get when you put a group of people on an island, pit them against each other to win the heart of a bachelor, subject them to natural disasters, and then make them sing?
A TV Guide!
This season, whether we are watching self-imposed castaways, blind dates and brazen bachelors, America’s next pop diva or trauma patients in a real-life emergency room, reality television is all the rage.
Cheap thrills. From a production standpoint, real life comes cheap. Stick a camera crew on an island, ambulance or blind date and eventually you are going to see chaos, drama and bloodshed.
And that’s just when the dates fight over who’s going to pick up the check.
There’s also the added value of reassuring squeamish audiences that no animals or actors were injured in the making of these programs. Only “real people” get hurt. Why risk Catherine Zeta-Jones when some poor schlub from Des Moines is willing to come so cheap?
For the programming staple of reality television, disaster documentaries that obtain footage of nature’s fury is hardly high tech.
This is thanks to the plethora of amateur videographers – none of whom possess the sense God gave a goose and are thus willing to stand directly in the path of a F-5 tornado with only a video camera for protection. Your average funnel cloud or hurricane gets more paparazzi action than Jennifer Lopez.
So for producers the allure is clear. But why do we watch?
Remotely brave. Could it be our collective need to get an adrenaline rush without losing our grip on the remote control?
We may be a nation of couch potatoes, but when we watch reality shows we can imagine ourselves braving raging rapids, cliff diving into crocodile infested waters, or at the very least exercising.
And then there’s the Napoleonic power to vote off people with no discernible singing or dating talent. Or simply because we don’t like their hair.
More importantly, we can believe that we too would lift a car off a baby, or hold tight to the trapped man even as the raging rapids tried to pry him from our heroic, tireless grip – that we could build a fire using only a single grain of sand and our wits; leap over tall fences to apprehend the perp; or successfully date on national television.
Survivors featured in disaster documentaries lead us to believe that time and again people ride out tornadoes with only a bathtub or an old pickup truck for shelter – coming safely to rest miles from home without even losing their grip on the family Chihuahua.
Trauma programs show us mangled victims who are skillfully reassembled by teams of dedicated medical professionals. We desperately want to believe in this sort of thing.
Survives all. I know I come away from these programs convinced that I can survive anything.
Well, anything short of having to sing in front of 20 million people or dating that goofy guy from The Bachelor. Some things are just too horrible to contemplate.
In the end it likely comes down not so much to pathetic voyeurism as to a collective will to survive in an increasingly uncertain and out-of-control world.
Perhaps we just want to know that with the right bathtub to cower in we can survive almost anything. Or that if the bathtub should fail us, the surgeons can skillfully reattach our heads so that we may sing, and date badly, another day.
Or, more likely, we just want to know that we can overcome nearly any adversity – be it nature’s fury or human nature. With the latter being the far more challenging of the two.
(Kymberly Foster Seabolt leads a life that bears no resemblance to any reality program on television – and is exceedingly grateful. She welcomes comments c/o P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)