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If You Love Something, Burn it to the Ground and Destroy It

June 22, 2009

The viking-age Scandinavians may have been onto something.

Around 800 A.D., the Norse would celebrate the death of a loved one by piling the corpse onto a ship or stack of kindling, surrounding them with all the things they adored most in life, and ritualistically light the ship or pyre ablaze, watching as the embers flew far into the heavens and the flames grew into the night.

This, it strikes me, is almost exactly what we do to the things we love culturally. Only we don’t wait until they’ve died.

Let me point something out: I don’t like writing about reality television. But it provides such a steady stream of ridiculousness into our culture that it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. And the pool is quickly diluting. We’ve come from [relatively] sane, solid programs like Survivor and The Amazing Race to schlock like The Hills and the aptly-named I Love Money. As far as television goes, it’s all terrible. But from a purely sociological standpoint, it’s absolutely fascinating. Where these programs previously found the most deft competitors to fill out their lineups, today it’s all about who’ll make the best television. Who’ll be the biggest mess. Who’ll raise the most hackles.

It’s like casting an episode of Jeopardy with the biggest idiots you can find. Although, come to think of it, that might be entertaining as well.

But here’s the problem — not just with reality television, but with many facets of our current pop cultural landscape. We only want to love these things until we’re tired of them, at which point a morbid fascination with how something will self-destruct becomes our focus.

Take, for instance — out of necessity, only — Jon and Kate Plus Eight. Oh, those dreaded five words. But what began as a touching look into a family lovably struggling to raise eight children has become the entertainment equivalent of watching a marital snuff film. And they’ve never been more famous. They’re everywhere. They’re all over the news. Once, people may have talked about the couple as a delightful diversion, now it’s all about “how’s it going to end?”

We’ve begun to look at Jon and Kate Gosselin in the same way we look at the television show Lost: you’d better wrap this thing up in a mindblowing way or we’re going to feel cheated having watched it. But it’s not an ABC drama. It’s the real life of two people — and their children. It’s likely not going to end with a nuclear bomb dropping, or the realization that it was all just Jon’s dream. It’s a real scenario, with real results that are unfortunately going to haunt these children for the rest of their lives.

And we did this to them. The press hounded out Jon’s infidelity, making them front page news. Then Kate reacted with vitriol, which the bloodthirsty masses demanded. And now they’re stalked by paparazzi everywhere they go. They’ve no choice but to end this. There will be no more seasons of the show where everything’s wonderful. It’s tainted. We tainted it.

Exhibit B: poor, frumpy Susan Boyle. Who didn’t feel good when they watched the YouTube video of Boyle’s on-stage transformation from bored homemaker into a Broadway diva for the moment, fulfilling her dream? And now, as Simon Cowell admits he would “rip up her contract,” and Extra refers to her as “SuBo,” we’ve never been more interested (as a group) in Boyle’s descent spiraling into the abyss. She’s followed to a clinic for exhaustion, she’s mauled in airports by photographers. And now she’s a national joke — only a month and a half later. Hope you enjoyed the realization of your lifelong dream, Susan. And all you wanted to do was sing.

As a society, we can’t even tolerate what we think we want. Take a look at Batman, immortalized with Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson. Great film. Then we demanded more. So we got another Burton film. And we wanted more. So we got Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, terrible movies, and everyone hated it. Fault of the studios? Perhaps, but it was our lust to see more that forced the shoddy workmanship. And how have we fixed Batman? By destroying the franchise completely and starting over. Now we love it again. Now it’s fantastic again. And the same has been done to Star Trek and the James Bond franchise. We got what we wanted. We were tired of it one way, so it had to be killed. It was, after all, the only way to save it. It had to be new again for us to love it again.

The list goes on, into the annals of music and theatre and novels (Rihanna, for instance, has never been more famous than when she became a victim of domestic violence). As an audience, we’ve become the equivalent of a Roman mob, thumbs down. We want something only so we can judge it. Nothing can exist as a source of positive feeling; it seems as if we won’t be happy until that goodness crumbles. If popular culture mimics that of its denizens, what does that say about us? Marriages are dissolving daily as a culture of divorce prompts many to think that when they’re tired of their spouses, just get a new one. When our children have troubles, just drug them. There’s very little argument given to trying to fix things. To work things out. It all just has to end. In some twisted real-life “season finale.” And which way will appeal to the broadest demographic?

We live in an age where you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it. Make a phone call from anywhere. Find any old classmates you want. Order anything you could possibly desire online. We’ve made our culture about us, in ways that are heretofore unseen. We demand results, whether it’s in our own lives or in the characters we see on television — be they craftedly written or, in many cases, actual human beings.

It’s hard to ignore the silliness in reality television from time to time; it’s just too fun to poke at. After all, Heidi and Spencer Pratt have merged into a field of entertainment that’s sheer “character comedy.” And that’s fine. They’re not hurting anyone, acting like fools. But there’s a line where we stop mocking and start watching real people crumbling before us. That line is being blurred by the television networks and news tabloids who know we won’t stop watching. And we should all do our best daily to continue define and adhere to those lines for ourselves, and know when to stop because it’s too much and too real. Because as we swarmed to them, we can also leave them alone.

We just can’t have nice things.

5 Comments
  1. Evan Hilbert permalink*
    June 22, 2009 3:26 pm

    If you think a well-written, thoughtful, enlightening post would deter me from doing snarky recaps, you got another thing coming.

  2. Mark M. permalink
    June 27, 2009 4:41 pm

    Of course the logical follow-up show is “Jon Minus Kate and Eight”, wherein he is shown having the time of his life, provoking the deep and abiding resentment of much of married America. Episode after episode could show him in a new place seeking and finding excitement and fulfillment, and millions would tune in watching for the comeuppance that never comes and millions more would secretly root for him but never admit it to their spouses. Think of it as a reality-show soap-opera version of the premise behind The Talented Mr. Ripley series.

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