The Riches of Embarrassment


I am, as I’ve mentioned in the past (Family Valued), something of an insomnia driven t.v. watcher. If you’re a member of that club then you already know that at some point the viewing choices are thin enough so that the commercials offer more entertainment than the scheduled programming. Having spent more than a few minutes living through an uncountable number of examples of this phenomenon I have reached the inescapable conclusion that we are now at the terminus of cultural evolution. If you’re willing to commit to an extended period of briskly paced channel surfing, at some hour between last call and reveille you can indulge in a virtual non-stop run of promotional material concerning upcoming episodes of a variety of programs involving, but not limited to, angry bridal parties (My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding), the arguably in-bred (Mama June) and the dubious joys of refrigerating recently deceased pets (Hoarders). I could write another a thousand words without scratching the surface. As far as I can tell, we have reached a place of societal reduction that feels as if it is rooted in a real, if unintended reversal of our perception of the value of an elevated threshold for humiliation. A trait that was once seen as a necessary, if painful, part of overcoming fear of risk is now viewed as a characteristic of unqualified good. A means to a desired end has now become a saleable commodity. If you watch television with any sort of frequency, it doesn’t take very long to realize that the slouching towards oblivion that I am referencing will most obviously manifest itself in the form of “unscripted” programming. Before I give the wrong impression to the reader, I should take a moment or two to back up a bit and acknowledge the history of this concept in the medium and recognize that not everything that falls under the general description of reality t.v. is intrinsically bad.

In it’s earliest days, television had many shows that did not qualify as written narratives, news, sports, or live entertainment of a theatrical or musical nature. Hidden camera (Candid Camera), talent search (Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour), quiz ($64,000 Question) and game shows (Beat the Clock) all eschewed even the hint of classic storytelling in favor of the actions of non-actors. Which, upon recalling the hours of their re-runs I watched as a child, left the shows in question on the good side of the argument I posited in the preceding paragraph. For many of the programs the reason for this is obvious. They were a legitimate, if stylized, display of the talents and skills of the participants. Whether playing the violin or answering difficult questions, the participants pushed past their embarrassment only as a way to demonstrate what was truly special about themselves. Risking public mortification was something that happened out of view, as an unavoidable pre-requisite to be able to take part in the raison d’etre of the show. The performance was what mattered. The same holds true today. Although not a fan myself, I have on occasion watched America’s Got Talent, with my wife. Regardless of whether or not I agree with the judges , there has never been a time where I thought that anything but singing, dancing, etc. was the heart of the show. There were, and are, shows that definitely focus to some degree on the reddened faces of the participants (The Gong Show, Family Feud), but even in these instances the embarrassment of the participant is seen as just that; a moment of comical ignominy, as opposed to a demonstration of their most admirable trait. Somewhere along the way things took a turn. Despite there being plenty of current productions of the type that I’ve referred to above, the viewing public has been subjected to an avalanche of the glorified cock fighting that I alluded to at the beginning of this piece. As ugly as this downward drift in taste is, it’s the psychological underpinnings of this trend that I find even more disturbing.

I can’t help but think that the glorification of shamelessness in the service of the attainment of celebrity is the sort of coarsening of our collective outlook on life that is bound to only spread in scope and grow harsher in impact over time. The most obvious example of what I’m referring to is our current President, and his 140 character or less proclamations that have done a nice job of confirming his seeming inability to experience disgrace in the way that most of us do. Although occasionally hilarious, and demonstrative of this societal tendency on a remarkably regular basis Mr. Trump’s itchy tweeting finger is so over the top it doesn’t really capture the casually surreptitious quality I’m thinking of. When someone in that unique of a position of authority is so extreme in his or her behavior, regardless of the impact there can be no reasonable claim of insidiousness. Likewise, as ugly as things might get as we’re assaulted by whatever Christians vs. the lions scenario is unfolding in front of our bleary eyes, most of us realize that at the end of the day we are viewing a grotesquely cartoonish collection of humanity that is (hopefully) most strongly related to us on the basis of scientific classification.

I’d like to believe that I’m similar to the perpetually angry sea cows of Bridezillas mostly in terms of shared genus and species. A less dramatic, but in some ways more discomfiting effect of all this geek show horseshit is that with the bar set impossibly high, so many people have expanded their own parameters as to what they are willing, or even comfortable, to say or do in casual discourse. It feels like people are a little more comfortable, being a little more comfortable. At first glance that comes across as a potential positive, and I suppose that depending on exactly what the occurrence is, it can be. I know from personal experience that a mild reduction in office formality can help workplace communication and productivity. I’ve written about the joys available from taking a less traditional view of acceptable adult leisure activity (Brooklyn Music Factory: Playing By Heart). I also know that it is now possible, and not really improbable, that at some point in the last few months somebody has uttered, without a whiff of ironic intent, the following sentence; “… if we hurry home from goat yoga, I can pick up my Valtrex on the way and we won’t have to Tivo the Kardashians.” Just my opinion, but I don’t think there’s anyway that phrase has a chance to become part of the lexicon if the population involved understands why it is that we’re supposed to be capable of being embarrassed in the first place.

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