Programming from Hell–or was that for Hell?

I don’t watch reality TV. Well, that’s not strictly true. When I’m trapped on the treadmill at the gym, it’s often on the wide-screens at the front. Watching it takes my mind off the fact that I’m (gasp) exercising, and I’m quite grateful for the distraction from my grumbling muscles.

One can’t help but wonder how contestants blunder onto these shows—many of them seem lambs lost in the woods of desperate circumstances. People unable to choose their wedding dress. Wedding planners leaping into the breach to save the day because someone fell into the cake. Nasty, knife-wielding chefs shrieking at their minions. People weeping as they do 3,185 push ups with a trainer ranting at them for eating a single chocolate covered almond. No, I’m not kidding. Who comes up with this stuff? I believe it was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who declared life to be short, nasty and brutish. These shows confirm all that and add “ridiculous” to the list.

So why do we watch them? I’m not sure, but as I trot on the high-tech hamster wheel (speaking of ridiculous), I’m utterly absorbed. Completely. Mesmerized. Some folks say it’s like watching a train wreck—it’s pure schadenfreude and we’re thankful it’s not us bawling all over national TV.

That may be true, but there’s also a huge yearning on the viewer’s part for triumph. We want the wedding to succeed; we need the heroes to stay on the island and the villains to go home in disgrace. Reality TV is packed with morality tales boiled down into their raw components, and a basic part of us is anxious to see them played out. Joseph Campbell would have had a field day with this stuff–forget the hero’s journey, this material is cutting to the chase in quick and uncomplicated sound bites.

Reality shows remind me of the medieval Everyman plays: Average Joe makes his way past the Seven Deadly Sins (substitute with challenges of your choice) to the pearly gates, succeeding because his faith is sound. Average Joe discovers worldly friends and favour melt away when Death (or the Bachelorette) arrives to test him. Only his Good Deeds remains to plead his case (bag the rose). Etcetera. Play the story out on a medieval fairground or the TV, the plot is pretty much the same.

Times change, but the trials of the human heart and soul still hold fundamental fascination. We still value honesty, optimism, and a protagonist who can stick it to the Devil—especially if he’s disguised as a celebrity chef.

Makes sense to me. Or maybe it’s just exhaustion 45 minutes into my workout. Speaking of the devil, could this treadmill possibly be purgatory?

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