Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Happens When You Go to Eleven

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianityby Josh Kiel

In my life there have occasionally been Sunday nights where, after a few beers, I turn on the television for some cheap, in the intellectually qualitative sense of the word, entertainment. Every so often I am treated to the MSNBC/Dateline series To Catch a Predator. Such was the case this past Sunday. For those of you who may not know this program, it is presented as an "investigation" exposing men who via the internet attempt to arrange sexual liaisons with underage persons. The host of the show then confronts the men when they show up at a house for that purpose.

The core of the show is the logical progression of a genre which it doesn't aspire to be: trashy reality television. My more cynical imagination of the show's origins involve an MSNBC producer flipping through his television channels one night and coming across Punk'd whereupon, in the spirit of Nigel Tufnel, he began wondering if that type of show can, "go to eleven."

There has been a progression in television from Candid Camera to Punk'd to To Catch a Predator which reflects on our definition of entertainment. The simple pranks of old that were so in vogue in the era of laugh tracks seem dull and boring to the generation that grew up with Worlds Wildest Police Chases and When Animals Attack. Without some level of shock value we the viewers raised on COPS and Fear Factor easily become bored and seek our thrills elsewhere. The fact is that in making these shows the producers fulfill our desires, but only momentarily until, like a drug, we want something stronger, something more real.

In that spirit we turn to programs like To Catch a Predator to seek out entertainment which has both shock value and lasting real life consequences. In reality, the collateral damage of the network's quest for ratings by providing the shock value we seek is that we witness the actual destruction of people's actual lives.

These are the stakes that the show's subjects face when they walk into the house. The typical episode includes some of the saddest displays of self-justification and illogical explanations that you may ever see. Once they encounter the show's host their awareness of their own guilt often becomes transparently obvious as they try to make a defense or reasoning for their presence.

Recently I watched an episode with some of my friends during which point one of them wondered, "Why don't they just shut up and get a lawyer?" If the men being confronted on the show had an informed advocate available during these encounters I doubt the show would ever have done so well.

The show's host in these interactions is given all of the materials to prepare for the encounter and has planned out the most condemning parts of the online conversations to confront the subject with upon their arrival. In essence the host is transformed into a quasi-omniscient accuser and serves as the embodiment of public opinion; a judge standing before them and damning them for their depravity.

In the face of this the subject will try to defend themselves in a manner that painfully demonstrates that they are completely incapable of doing so. Their chain of excuses and pathetic explanations ends with them being informed that their encounter is intended for display on national television, their shame for all the world to see. This isn't the end of their ordeal though because once they leave the house they are arrested, occasionally tasered, and interrogated by the police.

I find it easy to sit on the couch and watch all of this unfold with a detached feeling of superiority. At times I find myself conflicted about why we find this show entertaining. There haven't been any new "investigations" made by MSNBC in this series since 2007, but it is still a go to filler for the network when they need something to fill a time slot.

I've asked a few people I know why they believe the show is entertaining and the typical answer I get is that they're seeing justice done. This always strikes me as odd because there is the distinct possibility that if not for the show being produced some of the criminals featured may never have done anything criminally wrong in the first place. Stated another way, this may be a skewed reality according to the laws of supply and demand.

The show suggests that every one of the men would have ended up having sex with a child if they weren't actually talking to decoys. The hopeful idealist in me would think that the quantity of pre-teens spending time in internet chat rooms looking for sex does not meet the apparent abundance provided by the shows decoys. This would lead to a scenario where men exist who would want to have sex with children who simply haven't because of a lack of supply of willing victims; sad and pathetic yes, criminal no. To insert another obligatory pop culture reference, are these people being treated like the criminals in Minority Report, punished because of something they haven't done, but are expected to do?  Is that justice?

Being honest with myself and casting my concern for social airs of decency aside, the part of the show that I find appealing is the Schadenfreude involved. Maybe it's just my German heritage, but there is something entertaining about seeing these people try to defend themselves and failing completely. I realize that I'm not alone on that. If Schadenfreude wasn't entertaining then American Idol wouldn't have survived past the first few episodes. Who would want to listen to a bunch of terrible singers for an hour if we weren't rewarded with their utter decimation and humiliation delivered in a smarmy British accent.

I am of the opinion that reality television is one of the worst aspects of society today (Hello Teen Mom!). I view many of these shows as the modern incarnation of the Roman gladiatorial games. We're too refined to actually watch people die (maybe), but we will sit down and watch their hopes and egos destroyed for some mindless entertainment. Ruining peoples lives just seems to be the next level up from that.  I'm just hoping 2017 comes and goes without The Running Man becoming a television sensation.  (Google it kids, it's like The Hunger Games, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger).

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