A confession: I’ve played along from home with the reality TV show fad. As MTV’s Real World spanned my life from high school to college, I used to joke that, were I on the show, I’d be the one kicked off midseason, and life confirmed that joke all too often. By the time Survivor hit the scene, I’d matured enough that my enjoyment derived from fascination with human interactions. Because of the competitive and touristic twists, I held on with Amazing Race until my schedule edged it out just a few seasons ago.
At this point, though, few would dispute the suggestion that it’s time to rein the reality-TV culture in a bit. As Jonah Goldberg puts it, in a rhetorical question: “Can the rest of us afford to live in a society constantly auditioning to make an ass of itself on TV?”
Goldberg’s launching point is the new bottom of the barrel, Jersey Shore, and it sounds as if the setting has only drifted further into the sea of cultural disintegration since the summers that I spent along that stretch of sand willing my life to go wrong. Sad to say, it looks as if my high school gang was of the trendsetting generation, in that regard, and this point from Goldberg brings the shame of that assessment home:
British historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilizations thrive when the lower classes aspire to be like the upper classes, and they decay when the upper classes try to be like the lower classes. Looked at through this prism, it’s hard not to see America in a prolonged period of decay.
Back in the ’90s, George Carlin had a stand-up comedy bit suggesting that the nation should replace prisons with four contiguous wall-in pens somewhere out in the middle of the country. Each pen would have a different sort of criminal, and the whole thing would be paid for by throwing open the doors between them all once every few years and selling the result on pay per view. A decade later, it would sadly be plausible to worry that Americans would begin deliberately following life paths that would land them on the show.