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The 'Reality' of What Matters

The trend in today's American television reflects the worst qualities of the human disposition. They call it Reality T.V. but the name sticks like a bad spoonful of medicine in your throat. More honest by far to call it Unreal T.V. Around here in Hollywood, the way I hear industry people talk, it makes me think broadcasters don't really consider it a 'trend' anymore. It is here to stay. Truthfully, this type of programming has become the new backbone of major network television. And it makes my heart sink down to my toes.

If this type of reality T.V. culture represents where we stand right now, as a society, I'm sickened. I can't even bring myself to watch these shows (for the record, my viewing habits rarely stray from news channels and anime) but recently I have seen enough to push me over the limit: I never want my skin to crawl that much again.

Nothing I have seen of late casts a more unflattering light on us, the human race, than this stupefying, antagonizing, ethically vacuous, merciless, cruel-minded, and spirit-withering spate of television shows. All of them packaged up and sold to us as mindless entertainment.

Indeed, producers of such shows use that line as their only defense -- "Hey, we just make a stupid show, that's all it is… no big deal," says Jerry Springer himself when interviewed by Larry King. Mr. Springer shrugs off the brutality and dehumanizing aspect of his show with a soft smile and an innocent wave of his hand. He can afford to. For many years, Mr. Springer's modern day version of the Roman Coliseum has shown the most wretched people beating the snot out of each other to the delight of a drooling, rabid audience who applauds the parade of self-loathing seen onstage. Why would you tune in to a show where the very worst in race hatred, anti-gay hatred and misogyny reign supreme?

Wouldn't you rather soak your mind in a story that celebrates brotherhood, nobility, friendship, and the erasure of race-hatred; where multi-culturalism brings hope to a world that truly needs it? I will recommend a certain book if such concepts as these strike you as appealing.

Ah, but turn the channel and let's see what else is on. Give me the remote. How about the recent episode of "America's Top Model," where contestants vie against each other to prove that good genes and designer jeans are the perfect solution to bring them happiness -- and lots of cash. Of the pretty girls living in Italy during the show's production, lonely Shandi finds herself far away from her lifelong boyfriend who is back in America. She cheats on her boyfriend with a local Italian stud (who was conveniently supplied by the producers) and then afterward calls the States, admitting her sexual misdeed to her boyfriend and crying on the floor, begging for the pain to go away. The phone is bugged -- we the television audience bear witness to every heart-shredding moment of agony between them. His trust is shattered, all his faith and respect for this young woman is now gone, and pure despair is all you hear in his voice. But it will work out okay, Shandi, because your next challenge is to go shopping for a fabulous frock, so the "celebrity judges" can tell something about you from your bargain hunting abilities. The music changes, the girls forget their troubles and focus on the one thing that matters most: looking gorgeous in haute couture and beating the other girls out of competition. The message: it doesn't matter if you have no soul left, as long as you look good, wear the right things, and hide the pain inside with a facade. Thank you Tyra Banks.

Last week in the New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan praised "America's Top Model," explaining that "Seeing our fellows judged, and judged so definitively and emphatically, provides an evil pleasure…" I'm sorry Ms. Heffernan, but I don't live in that world.

Wouldn't you rather live in a world (you know the one) where the ugliest, most wretched of creatures, barely recognizable to who he once was, is still offered the grace and kindness to turn himself around? Is it not better to allow people their own potential, their own wisdom, their innate humanity, no matter what they look or dress like? I know a book that honors that very idea. You should read it sometime.

Yet the dose of "reality" we are digesting from these shows is getting out of hand. There's the show "Playing it Straight," where a group of straight and gay men have to deceive their way into a naive girl's heart. The straight men already confess on the show they don't care for the girl, they just want to get it over with and win $500,000. Even better for the gay men: they have to get back in the closet and betray their own identities, throwing their integrity out the window, for a shot at $1 million. That's exactly what we need right now: encouraging people that lying and deceiving will make them rich.

Or how about the upcoming "The Swan" -- where unattractive ugly duckling women will go under the knives of way too zealous plastic surgeons in order to magically transform their misery into something new. Plastic, yes. False, yes. But still a lot better than having to be yourself.

Every shred of who we really are is up for grabs now. Anything that is tawdry, painful, deceitful, or villainous can be exploited by these shows' producers and turned into entertainment. And sadly, the ratings suggest America is a country completely fixated on this type of horse manure. I understand the nature of the business. I understand the T.V. industry needs to reinvent itself to keep up with an audience that is constantly eroding, but at what cost? These bottom-feeder shows are built on people lying, manipulating, and otherwise prostrating themselves to the cruelty of others for the superficial jolt of "reality ratings." And television likes to think of itself as holding up a mirror to society at large. But the complete picture resides not in T.V. Land. There are other popular forces at work, showing us more important things about ourselves.

I will not accept that such reality shows are the ultimate barometer of America's cultural outlook and attitude. I just cannot accept that. For there is another phenomenon roaring loudly on the landscape of pop culture; standing in bright contrast to this vile tendency towards cheapening our humanity. There is another story, one you may have heard of, that people enjoy with all their hearts; for it provides them a much needed uplift in these difficult times. This is where the rubber meets the road, ladies and gentlemen, and no amount of 'reality' potholes can stop us riding forward on our great cultural journey.

Consider the massive worldwide audience gathered over the years for The Lord of the Rings. The book has been supported by hundreds of millions of readers and the recent films are very much part of the zeitgeist; offering up the perfect antidote to the warning signs and red lights. Almost three billion dollars worldwide box office. A trilogy total of 17 Academy Awards. Untold hundreds of millions of books sold, to be passed down to younger readers when the time comes.

We have seen the garbage shows that cheapen the human experience. But we have also embraced the themes in Tolkien's story that shine a light on us. People from different generations and national cultures still find the concepts he puts forward rewarding -- friends dying for each other, sacrifices are unexpectedly rewarded, endurance proves you stronger, women standing alongside men capable of great things, the smaller pleasures of hearth and home are worth the struggle, love and hope endure, and powerful acknowledgment is its own reward. Do you think you're going to learn life-lessons like that watching reality T.V.?

Looking objectively at today's popular inclinations -- equally in music, art, broadcasting, and motion pictures -- special regard must be given to the amazing presence of LOTR on the cultural canvas. You can see by the books' (and the films') wild success that the audience is so thirsty for it. Yes, the movie audience, built up so much on the long-standing readership, wants to be uplifted. We want to raise the level of discourse to show us more meaningful, satisfying visions. It bodes well for the future of Mankind that so many people want to hear this story told, over and over. Tolkien's thematic reach has always enriched our minds and hearts. LOTR manages the rarified feat of truly "uplifting" you, while still being a "real page turner" (as Peter Jackson once said).

The moral of the story: It can be "pop" and still be really, really good. And good for you.

The reality of what matters in life you will never learn from watching cheap shows that pander to the lowest common denominator. Get your kids to turn off the television. Turn it off yourself. Pick up the book or spin the DVD again. You can learn so much about reality by reading a fantasy.

Don't you just love irony?

Much too hasty,

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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