Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Confection Currents

Thanks to reality TV, there's a lot of talk these days about the return of "bread and circuses," i.e., the tendency of the ruling class to distract the plebians with meaningless entertainments so that those plebians don't think too deeply about more important matters.

Of course, the days of bread and circuses never really left, but what today's distractions are beginning to lose is subtlety. On "Rebel Billionaire," contestants face genuinely life-threatening challenges every week, and on tonight's premiere episode of "The Real Gilligan's Island," a faux-Skipper was rushed to hospital after collapsing during the first challenge. He lived, but had to bow out of the contest early.

If this trend continues, I wouldn't be surprised if someone gets killed. If that happens during the taping of a reality show, will the producers or network choose not to air the episode? I wonder. The ratings would skyrocket. But would the reality show genre survive the backlash?

I think they would. Look at car racing - some people watch them only for the crashes, and hundreds of professional drivers have been killed in front of huge audiences. And yet the sport continues. It has become an accepted part of the culture. People are bloodthirsty, and when someone dies on television, it's exciting, it's dramatic. And if we're really wrapped up in the sport, we experience the powerful catharsis of grief. In a rational culture, sports with such high mortality rates would be banned - the loss of life would far outweigh the social and economic benefits.

But the races go on, to no purpose that I can see. And so will reality shows, even if Donald Trump fires the next apprentice from a cannon.

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