While "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" was roundly vilified, I admired at least how it showed the shallow dating culture for what it is: men look for sex objects, and women look for success objects.
Last summer, Americans planned entire evenings around a new reality TV show, "Survivor." Dates were cancelled, life put on hold, as we watched other people doing what we seem to have forgotten how to do: live.
Reality TV, the latest, greatest and arguably most precarious trend in current programming has fastened on what intrusive talk-show hosts realized in the early '90s: audience numbers are directly related to the level of a show's invasiveness. When, nearly 10 years ago, MTV had the brilliant idea of placing a camera in the New York City home of seven "ordinary" Generation X-ers (ordinary save for the fact that they lived in an apartment with a rent that would exceed five figures and they all had pimple free skin), the music channel captured the ugly side to humanity (You can now buy a video tape of only the fights and arguments of "Real World") in a cinema verite narrative. Reality TV was born.
Some people would say there is nothing really new about boredom in every day life. In an earlier age, when we were bored with our lives we escaped into fantasy. Films like "The Wizard of Oz" and "Star Wars" have always been popular. They took us to another world that we were unable to reach, no matter how many times we tapped our heels together or swore the pledge of a Jedi Warrior.
But something has changed. Now we're escaping the everyday by immersing ourselves, not in a fantasy, but in someone else's everyday. Could you imagine, escaping your reality by latching on to someone else's reality? This is truly novel. And truly worrying. It means that we're bored not with life in general, but rather our lives in particular. Rather than seeking an escape from our day to day tasks in the pages of an 18th-century Romance, or in some stunning celluloid images, we immerse ourselves in Eddie, a character from the reality show "Big Brother" brushing his teeth, Eddie eating cereal, Eddie applying deodorant. Do we really find life so incredibly boring that, rather than have a drink with our own friends we would choose to watch Eddie have a drink with Eddie's friends? Where do we turn when we have grown tired of that?
The irony of "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" is that people ended up hating the show. It revealed us as a race who barter for beauty and money and little else. I guess the truth hurts.
What does the latest reality sensation, "Temptation Island" tell us? On this show, four committed couples will have their faithfulness tested. They will be exposed to (Wait! Let me guess!) beautifully tanned, leggy blondes (what, is there no place for a short Rabbi in reality television?) whose role is to tempt and seduce each partner to stray. The Fox network is capitalizing on some tragic statistics here: 84% of men and 80% of women think about other people when they are making love, and the divorce rate hovers around 60%. Frankly I find their willingness to act out these numbers immensely sad.
We reality TV phenomenon is another example of what I've called "Generation O": an epoch of people with everything on the outside and nothing on the inside. We are a generation in dire need of a spiritual center. As boredom becomes the bane of our life, we feel emptiness, and we continue to reach outward rather than inward to alleviate the problem. We would rather watch anything or anyone projected by a diode tube that attempt to enhance what is happening in our own lives.
Let me conclude on a hopeful note, because I believe there is reason for timid hope in reality TV. Our obsession with the other's "everyday" indicates an overall return to authenticity. That is, our search for truth in other people's lives denotes an inclination towards truth as a valuable, essential human need. Hollywood has long presented us with a manufactured world to manipulate our emotions; perhaps people are tired of fabricated tales. They are tired of being spoon fed saccharine stories. They are starving for truth. Now they must learn to look for it within themselves, rather than through a cathode tube.
Until that glorious time arrives, my hope is that the next reality TV show will be entitled, "Synagogue Slumberfest," a reality-based TV show depicting me giving my weekly sermon in the Synagogue, and the enormous impact it has on my congregants. A show that exciting is sure to cure all of their reality-TV addiction.