I really don't know why I'm so hooked on television. It's an escape. It’s hypnotic. It reveals a reality that no one could possibly believe.
Some shows pit people against each other in odd situations. There are cooking contests; there are home decorating contests; there are shows about people whose houses are filled with clutter including unopened boxes of stuff they bought themselves years ago and don’t remember yet refuse to part with because they say they might need whatever it is someday.
People on daytime TV reveal their innermost thoughts with hysterical alacrity. Dr. Phil will tease out of his guests secrets that no previous generation would ever have admitted, and the subjects of these confrontations weep and take it in front of a studio audience and cameras. There was this family who came to him years ago--a battling couple with two girls, both dabbling in sex and drugs, all four defensive and hostile. After a few sessions with Dr. Phil the younger daughter revealed she was pregnant by her jailbird boy friend and Dr. Phil acted like a great solution would be for her to have the baby, grow up somehow, and everybody would be happy. She did have the baby, and for years now the family keeps coming back to the Dr. Phil show while she bounces from one reprobate felon to another, still doing drugs of some kind and still popping out babies that her parents—never paragons of maturity and wisdom themselves—are stuck raising. Dr. Phil consoled the mother by getting her some plastic surgery and a personal trainer.
Ordinary people aren’t allowed to be so any more; they willingly subject themselves to beauty makeovers, home makeovers, and life makeovers. Interior designers throw out people’s furniture, tear down walls, paint the places in garish colors and their victims squeal with delight and weep openly, proclaiming ecstatically that their lives have been changed forever. People are not only passionate about the inconsequential, they clamor to expose that passion to the world. There is a life coach who talks with couples about their marital problems in order to repair a dysfunctional marriage and rebuild an uncomfortable house. When the couple take prescribed steps to resolve their foundering relationship, the coach rewards the family with a home renovation that would cost $50-$100,000 in real life.
Some shows are about so-called “housewives”—women in their 30’s and 40’s who live in ritzy areas and have time for what men think of as the age-old female pursuits—backbiting, bitching, and spending money. The term “housewives” was taken from the ironic title of a comedy series called Desperate Housewives about a the soap-opera lives in a suburban neighborhood, and with it came a new definition. A housewife, rather than a wife and mother devoted to keeping hearth and home, now means a beautiful and overindulged woman with time and money on her hands and happens to have a husband and children. An exhaustive article in today's New York Times revealed the market research that goes into the planning of these shows which are advertised as "reality." The Real Housewives of New York City shows us a capsule slice of the lives of some well-chosen women who live on the Upper East Side and spend most of their waking hours at restaurants, fund raisers and fashion shows, gossiping and defending themselves against gossip by digging themselves even deeper in questionable behavior. The Real Housewives of New Jersey involves a gaggle of sisters and sisters-in-law who live in the same community and have an inordinate amount of time to visit each other and interfere in business that in another lifetime would have been private, if not in the community, at least to the the larger world that happens to own a television set. What the research apparently indicates is that when an interloper encroaches, enough drama will ensue that the viewers keep tuning in to be a part of the fireworks.
Dirty laundry is willingly aired. There are judges who officiate at small-claims settlements. There is a show that trades the mother and wife in one family for the mother and wife in another, diametrically opposed family--both on the borderline of what is accepted as normal—to see what happens. There is a show that pits young beauties against each other for the hand in marriage of a man none of them really knows. There is even one that turn those tables and makes young men compete for a nubile beauty, just as it once was in real life, when everyone wasn’t made up for the camera and most people knew each other pretty well before making that leap.
And of course there are the commercials. Some chipper woman with an irritating voice and in a white uniform bleats to an innocent man nearby that he should buy something called “Progressive.” Whether it is insurance or breakfast food I know not because I can’t make head or tail of her sales pitch and I mute it whenever I hear the sound of her. And if you like your vacuum cleaner, you apparently can tell because it talks to you and dresses like you. Then there is one commercial in which the woman throws away her mop and it falls in love with a nearby bowling ball.
All this jabbering cannot be good for the brain. I suspect it has altered our way of using that organ, giving us all shorter attention spans and addling us for serious thought in the hope of manipulating us to buy more products. I also suspect that it works. It’s hard to live in a quiet house with all television removed.
Try as I might to tell myself I’m wasting time with this white-noise surrounding my life, I still don’t seem able to turn away. Television is a great train wreck with all the victims exposed, bruise for bruise, much as on a hospital dramatic show (like House, which I watch religiously, or Grey's Anatomy, which I've never seen. (You can't watch everything.)
I said before it's a form of escapism, but what would I want to escape from? I am independent, I go where I want to (which, often as not, is New York City) and I seldom see anyone I don’t choose to see. Television brings people I don’t want to know about right into my apartment and shows me perversions I would never have known about. It keeps me from reading, from writing, it does little to entertain and nothing to enlighten. But I'm fascinated by the manufactured reality of it all.