It’s now been several generations since we considered a carnival sideshow an acceptable form of entertainment. Today photos or drawings from early 20th century circuses tend to evoke gasps. It’s jarring to consider that people who had an unconventional appearance were put on display and were considered entertainment. What societal limitations caused people to take to the circus tent? What kind of people would take pleasure in viewing a ‘freak show’? We will cover these and other questions in Intro To Reality Television: Evolution and Devolution.
After the Elephant Man heyday of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Americans got hold of themselves and backed away from such voyeurism and exhibitionism. Later, with the advent of political correctness we bowed our heads in shame and taught our children not to point. If we came across a midnight showing of Freaks (1932) we watched it in the dark, with a certain amount of guilt. And then we got our base groove back. Sometime during the Reagan boom years we found comfort in gawking at the rich. It’s okay to gawk and make spectacle of those (economically) better off, right? Robin Leach was the mid-1980s barker of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and we gawked. He paved the way for us to release our pent up desires. Soon the business of celebrity boomed, to feed our insatiable appetite for fodder. It was okay to gawk and poke fun at people who had what we did not. But like any indulgence, it lost its ability to satisfy. Soon it wasn’t enough to see a child actress implode in front of our eyes. After a dozen or so of those kids, it ceases to impress.
Media abhors a vacuum, and can spot a hole in the market from space. Cue the new wave of reality television. A modern audience would not be satisfied with viewing a stock still anomaly on a stage, we are happier to see these specimens in their ‘natural’ habitat. We want to see people with their; 6,8,12,18,20 children going about their daily lives. Viewing wealthy people’s staged homes is no longer enough. We need to see them in prompted dramas. We need to see them dressed in award ceremony gowns to attend barbecues. We want to see them squabbling and behaving like junior high school students. We care little that there is no real wealth (and often bankruptcy.) Who cares that a title has been purchased, the hair is synthetic and the faces could be used as flotation devices? What we love is the sideshow behavior. It matters not that the behavior is created for our viewing pleasure. Who really cares that a toddler’s beauty pageant (in a sad little rural motel) is the most boring event one could ever imagine? With enough manufactured histrionics and adept editing, it’s more fun than a cross-dressing General Tom Thumb. Having a messy house, clipping coupons, or choosing a dress, are a snore fest. But throw in a few “No she didn’ts” or a litany of psychobabble and you’ve got yourself a show. The more fragile a participant is, the better the show. Make them cry, make them sound certifiable, and we’ll grab our chips and put down the remote. Emotional instability not your thing? Fear not, we’ve got shows about little people, the conjoined, the fattest man, the fattest woman, and the tattooed. Sound familiar? P.T. Barnum would be so proud.
In preparation of our next session: Professions Made To Look Glamorous; please review Baking, Trucking, Fishing shows and the newest addition to the golden age of television: The Search Is on for the Best Hooker in America.