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And aren't they? Isn't there something simply wrong with people who enjoy entertainment that depends on ordinary people getting their heart broken, being told they can't sing or getting played for fools? That's the question behind the protest of CBS's plans to make a real-life version of The Beverly Hillbillies with a poor rural family. Says Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, "If somebody had proposed, 'Let's go into the barrio in L.A. and find a family of immigrants and put them in a mansion, and won't it be funny when they interview maids?' then people could see that's a step too far." It's hard to either defend or attack a show that doesn't exist yet, but it's also true that the original sitcom was far harder on Mr. Drysdale than the Clampetts. And on The Osbournes, Ozzy--another Beverly Hills fish out of water--was "humiliated" into becoming the most beloved dad in America.
Indeed, for all the talk about "humiliation TV," what's striking about most reality shows is how good humored and resilient most of the participants are: the American Idol rejectees stubbornly convinced of their own talent, the Fear Factor players walking away from vats of insects like Olympic champions. What finally bothers their detractors is, perhaps, not that these people are humiliated but that they are not. Embarrassment, these shows demonstrate, is survivable, even ignorable, and ignoring embarrassment is a skill we all could use. It is what you risk--like injury in a sport--in order to triumph. "What people are really responding to on these shows is people pursuing their dreams," says American Candidate producer R.J. Cutler. A reality show with all humiliation and no triumph would be boring.
And at their best, the shows offer something else entirely. One of the most arresting moments this TV season came on American Idol, when a single mom and professional boxer from Detroit flunked her audition. The show went with her backstage, with her adorable young son, as she told her life story. Her husband, a corrections officer, was murdered a few years before. She had taken up boxing--her ring name is "Lady Tiger"--because you can't raise a kid on waitress money. Her monologue went from defiance ("You'll see my album. Lady Tiger don't stop") to despair ("You ain't going nowhere in Detroit. Nowhere") to dignified resolve for her son's sake ("We're never going to quit, are we, angel?"). It was a haunting slice of life, more authentic than any ER subplot.
Was Lady Tiger setting a bad example for her son on national TV? Or setting a good example by dreaming, persevering and being proud? American Idol didn't say. It didn't nudge us to laugh at her or prod us to cry for her. In about two minutes, it just told a quintessentially American story of ambition and desperation and shrinking options, and it left the judgment to us. That's unsettling. That's heartbreaking. And the reality is, that's great TV. --Reported by Amy Lennard Goehner/New York, Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles and Adam Pitluk/Dallas