I’m back on the road this week, living the Hampton Inn lifestyle which inherently means I’m always in a state somewhere between lidded coffee cups and I’m consuming terrible television by the boat load. Back in college I wrote a paper about how the writers of The Simpson’s were indirectly steering society towards a better tomorrow by highlighting the foibles of a one Mr. Homer J. Simpson. The essence of the paper was that in depicting Homer lying on the couch in his underwear picking his teeth with the mail they were sending a message to every American male that this is what they don’t want to be. Every time a kid looked to his or her father and said, “hey, you’re acting just like Homer” that should set off alarm bells in any self-respecting man’s head that they should probably remedy their actions. The Simpson’s writers were showing society what they shouldn’t be while all other non-Married With Children television was preoccupied with trying to tell everyone what they should.
I bring this up as I scroll through the random cable channels and am inundated with tales of the Amish, moonshiners, snake handlers, hillbillies, pregnant teens, and superficial housewives. Essentially television is filled with the outliers of society. My debate is whether this is done to glorify these people or to set an example for the rest of us as to what we should aspire not to be.
I hate to give too much credit to quasi-reality television producers but I think they’ve found the one subset of society that they can outsmart. The common theme throughout each of the central characters of these programs is a lack of a formal education. Either due to their rural or religious upbringing most of the people on these shows truly believe in what they’re doing and saying but their context for what is “normal” or “right” or even “logical” is so eschewed from the rest of society that it is deemed entertaining. While these people, when presented with contracts, cash, and cameras are able to convince themselves that they’re setting themselves up to be role models and icons, what they never seem to grasp is the only setup here is for their own failure.
It doesn’t take long for these shows to develop a cult following which quickly evolves into a social media roast of these aspiring celebrities. Once the tweets stop rolling in and the hashtags go stale, the shows get cancelled and some new drivel will receive a green light in their place. In theory this cycle will continue until we run out of these extreme outlying communities that are willing to let the cameras in. When that day comes are we in a better place as a collective or do we need these extremes, if for no other reason than to better define the middle?
I question whether the producers of these shows and the network executives who cut their paychecks have these existential debates about their ability to steer our society by shining a light on that which we should not aspire to be, or are they just in it for the ratings and the associated advertising dollars. I think we all know the answer to the question but in square rooms that come equipped with mini fridges and hangers without hooks sometimes it’s fun to think outside the box.