The new culture of trash-talking TV

BY BERNIE NGUYEN

Published September 18, 2006

There are a lot of things out there proclaiming we're a godless society - that our greatest pleasure lies in watching celebrities and politicians get ripped apart, and that we derive some fundamental pleasure from watching Nancy Grace, whose helmet hair is perfectly suited to the barbarian-like way she clobbers viewers with her own brand of justice. I think there might be a religious sect somewhere in the heartland counting down the days until the apocalypse, and who can blame them? Tsunamis, hurricanes, floods and the only thing we care about is whether or not that really hot chick in the bikini will stab her best friend in the back for a wad of cash.

Angela Cesere
The latest look in fall knitwear. (Courtesy of NBC)

TV culture is quickly degenerating into a culture of offense. Instead of art, comedy and substance, we've got shows on every network encouraging couples to cheat on each other. We've basically sold our grandmothers up the river for the chance to swing from a vine and eat chocolate naked on television. And it's even better when we can turn it into a race war. We surely aren't discriminatory enough in real life - let's make reality television the new hotspot for latent tension between ethnic groups. Let's watch the white people publicly confess their desire for those Hispanics to lose out. Awesome.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for entertainment, and there are shows on television that do just that without degrading their eager participants. "American Idol," for one. I'm not really a fan, but from what I see, it's like a karaoke competition on national television. And people love it. Reality television doesn't have to prey on the slick underbelly of morality to be successful. Sure, Simon Cowell is cutting. But he's honest, and mean judges aren't a new invention. People don't watch American Idol for Simon. They aren't looking for cruelty.

To some extent, reality TV is, in fact, real. We've always cheated, betrayed and lied to our friends and neighbors since we first started walking upright. But never before have we so celebrated that fact. We're not ashamed of our faults anymore - we're proud of them. And we're damn proud that we've found a way to turn a profit on them.

But after all, television is what people want to watch. No one would make shows like "Temptation Island" if there wasn't already a gaggle of vacant-eyed viewers waiting to be tempted by the vicarious meanness of thong-clad yuppies. And these bachelors, so slick and perfectly groomed, testing out women by the dozens based on nothing more than a first impression and sending them home while the spurned females weep into their confessional cameras about love, so soon lost. What love? Is this what we really think is romance? Are the promiscuous co-eds of "Real World" the role-models of today's middle-schoolers?

It's not about being prudish. It's about recognizing that there are things that can't be personal anymore because television has pushed every sacred subject out the window and dressed it in pasties.

It's spread to informational television, too. Instead of journalism, we have people like Grace and her crass "personality." All we hear her say is what the police do wrong, who was guilty. There's simply no way that she's wrong.

Except often she is. And when she's wrong, she messes up big time. Claims that Grace drove a woman to suicide are beginning to tinge the edges of her show more than a little crimson. After an interview with Grace, during which the television prosecutor grilled her for information concerning her whereabouts and activities at the time of her son's disappearance, Melinda Duckett, whose two-year-old is still missing, killed herself.

The controversy surrounding the case comes from all sides. Did she kill herself out of guilt? Was it because she felt that her case was hopeless? Or was she simply "bashed," as her relatives claim?

In the end, it doesn't really matter. What's sad is that even afterward, CNN still felt the compulsion to shock, and ran the interview anyway. What's sad is that the Schiavos and Ramseys of the world will almost certainly feel the aftereffects from the fact that their personal lives became another piece of sensational news. And why not? If we can watch a family of slightly obese, Juicy-wearing Oklahomans choke down dung beetles for a chance at $1,000, it's really not a far stretch to believe that we'll sell our own personal tragedies, formerly the stuff of plays and poetry, if someone offers us the right price.

Just make sure you negotiate. If Richard Hatch can get a million dollars by walking around naked on a beach, you should at least get that much for your dignity.