OpEd Columns

Feel-Good-About-Yourself Television (Boston Globe 3/8/03)

THE NIELSEN sweeps for February have just ended and it's time for all of us to get back to our own real lives. Personally, after watching the most recent batch of reality television, I feel much better about my own normal, boring, day-to-day existence. In fact, that's why I watch reality television, to feel good about myself. And I feel great! Admit it, you do, too.
I feel good about not being a loser, not getting a rose, not receiving a necklace, not being told how awful I sing. But isn't it fun to watch other people lose? That in fact is the premise behind ''The Bachelorette,'' ''Joe Millionaire,'' ''American Idol,'' ''Meet My Folks,'' ''Fear Factor,'' ''Survivor,'' ''Are You Hot?'' ''The Amazing Race,'' ''Temptation Island,'' ''Elimidate,'' etc. etc.
Don't believe the advertisements. We're not dying to know who wins these ultra-extended drawn-out versions of 1970s game shows. (Isn't ''The Bachelorette'' really ''The Dating Game'' plus 22 bachelors and a couple of hot tubs?) We're tuning in by the tens of millions to find out who loses each week and more important, how they lose. Now that's entertainment.
How could Trista hang all over perfect Charlie for seven weeks then dump him for fireman Ryan? How could bulldozing Evan salivate on camera each time he talked about money-grubbing Sarah, then awkwardly tell her to pack her bags in favor of plain ol' Zora? The anguish, the scorn, the shock, the humiliation. Set 'em up and shoot 'em down.
Everyone loves a loser.
Each show has a contestant who falls hard every week. And the networks parade them around the talk show circuit the morning after their demise so we can feel a little bit better knowing that just like slick Charlie, or scorned cowboy Brook, or funny fat Bob, or attention starved Russ, we won't be sleeping with Trista. Misery loves company.
But with each anguishing week, the hot Miami Heat cheerleader cools off as her sincerity sinks. We dislike Trista more and more as she leads her men down a path of false romance. Frankly, it makes me feel so much better about my own wife. I made the right choice.
To make matters better, Trista was a loser from the start.
Left roseless and teary-eyed, Trista was booted by the first bachelor who recently reappeared on national television to dump the bachelorette he ultimately chose to live happily ever after with. How great is that?
Even the premise of the show failed. Give a guy 25 beautiful women and he still blows it. What a loser!
The pinnacle of this feel good-a-thon is the mandatory loser reunion episode. The reality losers come together one more time in ''tell all' specials to whine, complain, and delay the airing of the final episode by another painful week. Let's hear loser Brook say Trista is ''shallow'' one more time. Why not?
Even the celebrity reality shows roll out loser after loser.
''The Surreal Life,'' ''Celebrity Mole,'' ''I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Outta Here.'' Washed-up celebrities awash in the jungle. From reality shows with no name characters to reality shows with no-name celebrities. I love watching a once popular, overweight, falling star pick ticks off the wrinkled leather neck of Rod Stewart's ex-wife during a monsoon. Makes me feel clean and fresh in my comfy suburban home. And we get to vote which one has to swim with vermin? Even better!
C'mon, we knew we had more talent than they ever did. And when a celebrity truly does possess artistry, he can't function as a normal citizen as we can. So let's watch him crumble in a more traditional reality show - the documentary.
I may not be able to dance like Michael Jackson. But if there was one loser celebrity who resurfaced during the February sweeps to make us all feel better about being responsible, loving parents, it was wacko Jacko. Twenty-seven million of us turned the dial to ABC just so that we could all turn to our loved ones and say ''I told you he was weird.''
Yep, that's right. Michael Jackson is weird. And I feel good about it.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.

Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell