Once upon a time a famous Russian star of the Yiddish theater was playing King Lear in New York City. He was overwhelmingly affecting in the scenes where the king's two daughters humiliate their father. Lear had given each daughter half of his kingdom, but his girls wouldn't let him visit their castles unless he rid himself of his knights and servants, the last remaining remnants of his regal dignity and authority.
The two women on stage relentlessly badgered their father with sharp-toothed viciousness, and Lear's expression of shame and anger so seared the audience that finally a Jewish mother, more grandmother than mother, rose from her seat and shouted at the stage: "How your children abuse you! I understand how you feel. You can come home with us."
The story may be apocryphal, but it makes a point about how an audience can be so engaged that the theater becomes reality. Such playacting inspires such identification with a character's pain that the audience wants to do something about it. Popular entertainment becomes uplifting.
Or bottom-feeding. "Reality shows," the latest hot trend on television, deflates empathy by encouraging audiences to enjoy the humiliation of the real people they watch. Audiences of uninvolved and uninspired spectators take pleasure in cruelty and enjoy another's embarrassment by indulging in a feeling of superiority, as synthetic as it is.
Whether singing contests, unsavory dining adventures (as in eating the rear end of a horse), or courtship rituals, these shows are structured to allow an audience to enjoy, and enjoy seems to be the right word, the degradation of real people from a cool distance.
In "Joe Millionaire," for example, young women abase themselves as they try to win the affection of a man they believe is worth millions. The audience knows that he actually earns a mere $19,000 a year, and the suspense that builds up through personal rejections will lead inevitably to the final episode where we'll watch the "survivor" react to being told the truth. Her transformation is destined for double-edged shame: The exposed gold-digger wooed by the dashing ditch-digger wins the gold-plated ring.
We're not watching an actress impersonating a character. This is a real person, naked in her manipulation and in getting her comeuppance. As viewers, we sharpen a mean spirit; there's none of the developing insight that comes from watching a meaningful "imitation" of life. This is actually life.
Superficially, reality shows seem harmless enough; no one forced any of the contestants to exhibit themselves. It's mayhem, not murder. But since we're in on the joke, it degrades us by appealing to our basest instincts. We experience no concern for people whose real lives will be affected by what we watch.
You might call it the "numbing down" of sensitivity. We're encouraged to enjoy the joke played on human guinea pigs without having to judge our motives for feeling pleasure. It's a collective cheap shot, a little like watching someone slip on a banana peel and break real bones without any appeal to human sympathy.
Network television salivates at the prospect of more reality shows. They're cheap, as in inexpensive, and so far wildly popular. "The audience is never wrong," Sandy Grushow, the chairman of the Fox Entertainment Group, tells The New York Times. "They have a huge appetite for this, and we've got a responsibility to satisfy that appetite." The hungriest for this entertainment are young men and women in their teens and twenties, an audience to build (and dream) on.
The parents of reality television are not Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones, but Pat and Bill Loud, in "An American Family," the couple who let television cameras camp in their home for seven months. The show became a PBS hit in 1973 as we watched a marriage fall apart and observed their son Lance become aware of his homosexuality, the first gay teenager to debut in prime time. PBS reprised Lance's celebrity not long ago, telling of his high-risk attempts to chase after fame. This time we see him, age 50, dying in an AIDS hospice.
Margaret Mead said of the Loud reality show that it "represents a new form which may be as significant for the understanding of human behavior as the invention of the novel." That was anthropological hyperbole. But the television lens has opened up a new form of voyeurism for perverse celebrity that tells us a lot about our television taste.
Of course, the schlock shock may merely be the latest cultural low point, soon to be as dated as "The Gong Show." Maybe the woman wooed and won by Joe Millionaire will love him for who he really is. Maybe horse intestine will become a culinary delight, like tofu, and maybe, just maybe, an "American Idol" will turn out to be as talented as Catherine Zeta-Jones. Then the laugh will be on us. Don't bet on it.