Here's a little test:
Step 1: Read this scene description:
"An alcoholic meth addict stripper throws food, spits, plays the music of Nine Inch Nails or some 'industrial' band that aspires to be Reznorian, and engages in a fist fight with her sister that goes from in to outdoors. She is nude throughout. This scene is from A&E's Intervention, a show that advises viewer discretion."
Step 2: Resist watching the actual scene that the above blurb describes:
It's hard, right? I'm well beyond the stage of piqued curiosity, having watched the above scene about 20 times now, and I'm still having a hard time resisting that play button. This comes from an episode of Intervention that originally aired in August. A few Google searches provide some message-board references to the episode, but as far as I can tell, it was never YouTubed or written about in any detail. I'm shocked, as this is not the most insane Intervention episode I've ever seen, it's one of the most insane things I've ever seen, period. I figure if nothing else, this clip should serve as a record of my deep, deep fascination with Cristy, someone who, at age 24, has been using meth for 10 years now.
Immediately, I feel like I have to defend my perverse pleasure in watching someone who's clearly demented (despite the fact that flying Cup o' Noodles is comedy, no matter the pilot, no matter the situation). I think ultimately, whether you cackled throughout the clip or really were able to skip it based on your disgust at the preceding description, it's hard to deny that this is extraordinary human behavior. It's only now that reality TV's debt to mondo movies is totally clear to me -- now, 45 years after the granddaddy of the shockumentary, Mondo Cane, promised on its poster to be your doorway to "a hundred incredible worlds where the camera has never gone before," it's a goal of broadcast media to make that number of worlds infinite. Cristy's is but one of millions.
Things might not be as romantic as the sofa-surfing-as-world-travel scenario envisioned above -- schadenfreude is knocking on the door of the house party. And how easy (and borderline socially acceptable) it is to revel in the misfortune of someone who was stupid enough to become addicted to meth, right? The length of her drug use makes it even hard to sympathize with her family (they're just intervening now?). But even more than these admittedly heartless and cynical rationalizations, there's an even bigger excuse for schadenfreude at work -- the simple fact that this is broadcast on television. It's funny, the push-pull of the media machine that gives us access to all these worlds and for what? Derisive laughter at the differences that make humankind what it is? Celebration of those differences? Reassurance that our lives could be worse? Reassurance that there's someone like us out there? While attempting to figure out why it's OK to be entertained by something so bleak and ostensibly real (and really, attempting to sort out how this doesn't make me a giant asshole), it struck me that I can't exactly defend this show as being socially responsible (at least, it isn't based on my reaction to it). There really is little difference between the above display and what goes down on the textbook target of trash-TV haters, The Jerry Springer Show. Well, there's the dim hope of rehabilitation that Intervention offers, always after the circus -- is it poetic justice or just plain poetry that "intervention" rhymes with "pretension"?
Taking pleasure in others' pain (or lack of self-awareness that leads to pain) is especially pertinent right now because of this week's debut of the seventh season of American Idol. Or at least, that's what I hear on The View, whose condescending panel bitched about the AI judges' treatment of the deluded, ugly and tone deaf during this week's episodes. (A side note: Is anyone else looking forward to the day when the View shrews are not the only ones setting the topic for whatever pop-cultural discourse is happening at the moment? Not only that but, Christ, as though Rosie's constant carrying on and theatrics don't comprise their own sort of freak show! She has America gawking at her every disgruntled and myopic complaint!) The deluded, ugly and tone deaf, though, seemingly try out for American Idol just to be on TV (which we've known for years now!). And since America loves fame so much, America is defensive about it -- fame whores, those in the spotlight for the wrong reasons face ridicule and punishment (it's here that Flavor of Love/I Love New York become more reflective of society than most would care to admit). So we laugh at idiocy. It's therapeutic, much like America's Next Top Model is therapy -- it's exercise for the id, as it creates a world where it's not just acceptable, but encouraged to judge someone only for superficial reasons. It's a way to politely experience what seems to be an integral part of the human condition for so many of us.
No matter how real something purports to be, the camera is the inescapable variable. It often affects whom it's pointed at, resulting in showboating, but it also affects the discerning viewer – we're aware of this very tendency of the camera to vary a situation, and so we understand that what we're seeing is merely an approximation of reality. Cristy's life is painful, yes, but her performance begs to be watched. Its unreality is just as crucial as its reality.
During one of my several viewings of Cristy's Intervention episode, someone that I didn't know that well who hated reality TV (see a connection?!) looked on and winced. "Ugh, what's next? Where do we go from here?" he asked in a manner not unlike homophobes who suggest that people being allowed marry animals must be the next logical step after legalized gay marriage. His question expressed his doom for our culture. I can relate to what he was asking -- I often wonder the same thing. Except when I do, I'm giddy over the prospects.
[Love, as always, goes out to slutmachine, who gave me the heads-up and brought Cristy into my world. Oh, and I'm not just plugging, sm's blog, but her existence, in case you're concerned. Thank God for you, slutmachine, the wind beneath my wings.]