WASHINGTON -- Television has become a flat-screened, high-definition window for the voyeur. In the profusion of reality television series, the curtain is pulled back on the more or less scripted lives of real people put in contrived situations designed to humiliate, titillate or inspire -- but mainly to humiliate and titillate.
The morbidly obese are put through their paces on treadmills and weighed on scales. Women are ridiculed for their dumpiness -- actually displayed on a street corner in a plastic cubicle -- and subjected to makeovers including surgery. Game show contestants are dared to eat insects and offal. Young adults are locked together in a hothouse paradise to see what hormonal weeds might grow.
Most of this is trivial rather than disturbing. (OK, I admit to watching "American Idol" -- which David Archuleta, by the way, should have won last season.) But if great art can elevate, it follows that corrupt entertainment can corrupt. Reality television, in many instances, not only appeals to a leering cruelty, it cultivates a leering cruelty.
But there is a subset of this genre that accomplishes something unexpected -- using the camera to humanize rather than to mock. The cable network TLC specializes in what it calls the "docu-series," which places a camera in a home and rolls without intervention. Millions of Americans have gotten to know the impressively regimented Duggars, with 18 children and counting; the Roloffs, a family comprised of both little and average-sized people; and, above all, Jon and Kate Gosselin, raising twins and sextuplets of monumental cuteness.
One would imagine watching the daily lives of others to be tedious. But the mundane turns out to be fascinating, even radical. This season, the Roloffs experienced the death of a close family friend. It was shocking to see adults and children reacting on television with genuine, uncomprehending grief. All these TLC families take religion seriously -- also a rare sight on television. Though grief and faith are just about universal, they are nearly always hidden in our popular culture -- the massive things we are never allowed to see.