From the ordinary to the extreme

Tim Paluch

Wednesday, August 23 is a day I wish I could forget. Some 51 million American television viewers sat down to watch the last episode of “Survivor.” It’s not something I am proud of, it was the first time I watched the show. I figured it was about time to see what all the fuss was about. What I witnessed that dreadful evening was the cause of the erosion of contemporary American society. As I watched with no real affiliation with the characters, I felt my ass move closer and closer to the edge of my seat. Within 10 minutes, I had fallen victim to a force more powerful than I ever dreamed existed, “Survivor” fever. I went through a plethora of emotions: outrage, intrigue, shame, fascination, disgust. The remote sat motionless and unneeded on my coffee table. I needed to know everything. What is this mysterious alliance? Why did Sue rip Kelly a new one? What’s the deal with the fat, naked gay guy? Luckily my roommate was a fanatical viewer and threw some background info my way during commercials. “Survivor” is corporate media at its best and worst. They knew if I began watching they’d hook me. I was just another mindless drone hooked on reality television. The term “reality television” obviously didn’t start with “Survivor.” A classic example of exploitation was “COPS.” Who could forget laughing at the blurred faces of drunken wife-beaters trying to outsmart a pack of trained police dogs by hiding under a pickup truck? MTV caught on to the trend by launching the narcissistic program “The Real World.” Take one black male, one ignorant white female, a gay guy, and a mack-daddy player, stick them in a big house in a big city and watch as pre-fabricated personality conflicts take center stage. And we watched. MTV then did one better and tried to determine how to increase the sexual frustration and conflict among seven young, beautiful, yet ordinary people by confining these conflicting stereotypes into an RV. A few board meetings later, they came up with “Road Rules.” And we watched. Another smash success. America’s strive to be famous, or at least watch other ordinary people attempt to be, came to prime-time again recently with the widely successful, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Every crossword puzzle junkie and trivial pursuit champion in America jammed the phone lines attempting to win the chance, a slight chance, of sitting across from and enduring the unfunny quirks and shiny new ties of Regis Philbin, who somehow transformed from “that second-rate morning guy who has to deal with Kathie Lee,” to a prime-time god. And talk about building the confidence of the American public. The questions on that show rivaled a third grade geography test. We all thought we were ph.d’s after an hour of that. For $125,000 all you have to know is what country Mexico City is in, or the color of grape Kool-aid. Plus, if you don’t know the answer, you can ask the audience or even call somebody! Who the hell is going to want to go on “Jeopardy” anymore? If you get by Alex Trebek’s Fuhrer-like rules for answering, and somehow know who the first president of Chile is, all you get is a measly $400 and no guarantee that you keep anything. Above all, the American public continues to be fascinated with transforming “ordinary” citizens into celebrities. We all want our 15 minutes of fame, and if we can’t have it, we sure as hell are going to watch someone who can. And “Survivor” is the ultimate show appealing to the lowest common denominator, that is the American public. “Survivor” blows any other reality television show away. The question is no longer “Who can be the most annoying real-worlder or road-ruler?” It is now who can be the meanest, most manipulative, and most conniving, lying backstabber in order to achieve the ultimate goal: Money. And this is perfect because it mirrors American society today. Climbing that corporate ladder does not rely heavily on ethics and values. vIt’s about doing whatever it takes to achieve the prize: Again, money. In the end, there were two characters remaining, the two worst human beings, the two who did whatever it was that had to be done to win. Every character on this show was absolutely detestable. And we laughed at their misfortunes, smiled as contestants plotted against one another, and snickered to think that any one of them would have killed any other if it meant an extra centipede at dinner. We watched as their personality flaws, not unlike our own, got trampled on and people were punished for their inability to compete, both physically and mentally. Not surprising from the same society that laughs at the fat kid on television while one of our chili-cheese Frito-stained hands beckon our kid to get us another Coors Light from the refrigerator 10 feet away. “Survivor” enhanced our titillation of voyeurism and our disgustingly morbid curiosity that goes with someone not unlike ourselves losing a contest due to normal flaws not unlike our own. We watch these horrific corporatized exploitations of human nature to escape reality. We want to see real people in situations that will challenge them as humans. We want to sit in our comfy lazy-boys and watch them fight the elements, eat bugs and fight amongst one another. The drama of everyday life just doesn’t cut it for the American public. We watch as ordinary people become millionaires, because it tells us we might have a chance of someday escaping our monotonous lives. We want to see pain and suffering and embarrassment happening to ordinary people, because those are things we all experience on a smaller level. We watch these shows and we will continue to watch them, in fact, we are perfect for one another.