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Jewish World Review July 6, 2000/3 Tamuz, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Surviving 'survivor' TV -- THE MORNING'S CONFESSIONAL SHOW was a real stunner. A young woman showed up to claim on camera that a certain men was the father of her infant. He protested, on camera, that he was no such thing. A test of DNA, taken beforehand, proved him right.

The young lady said: well, it's another guy, the first man's best friend. He, too, protested -- and DNA cleared him, too. When a third man was named -- mercifully, we were spared seeing him -- it was all but a foregone conclusion that the DNA was not his, either; and it wasn't.

The young woman was left without a clue. If she had been a teenager in the 1950s she might have said: "Maybe I got it from a toilet seat.''

Such humiliating exposures have become the staple of daytime television. The guys and doll in this particular instance seemed delighted to be on '`The Maury Povich Show.'' Much less important than the degrading facts of their lives was the pleasure they took in enjoying their 15 minutes of (in)fame(y). Stupidity fuses notoriety and celebrity.

If Nathaniel Hawthorne were to write "The Scarlet Letter'' today, the `A' would not be written as an emblem forced upon Hester Prynne by the court; her adultery would be enshrined by Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones. The Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale, whose identity was shielded by Hester, might even make a surprise appearance. Doctor Chillingworth, Hester's husband, would be deprived of his revenge through revelation -- all would be forgiven by a talk show host. All would end in hugs. The audience would be more interested in voyeurism than judgment.

When Oprah asked a young woman why she left her newborn in a trash bin, the new mother replied that she wanted her child to be safe and secure while she pursued her own college education. Not everyone would approve of the explanation, Oprah told her, but "I understand perfectly.''

"I understand perfectly.'' The mantra of our age, and the message we're meant to take from the run of new shows like "Survivor,'' "Big Brother,'' and "The 1900 House,'' where "real life'' men and women, as opposed to actors, are exposed as holding qualities that anyone with the slightest sense of decency -- not to speak of modesty -- would hide from public observation.

America's boo-boo kisser

But we're playing by different cultural rules and attitudes. The cultural antecedent for these new shows was spawned in 1973 with the PBS documentary of a family followed for 300 hours over seven months, and edited into a dozen one-hour episodes. Millions watched the real life activities of "An American Family,'' made up of two parents, five children, four cars, three dogs and a swimming pool. We watched the marriage of Pat and Bill Loud dissolve literally on camera. Their son Lance, age 21, confesses on camera that he is a homosexual, and the parents struggle with their emotions over that.

Pat Loud tells an audience that "Bill and I have never been able to have a relationship where we could honest-to-G-d talk to one another.'' Can anyone imagine a parent actually saying this to a circle of friends and family, much less millions of viewers? It was a shocker back then. Today it's commonplace.

In "The 1900 House'' a real family lives as they presumably would have lived in Victorian England. The real mom, age 44, even makes her own "sanitary rag belt,'' and we watch and listen as she learns how. Victorian woman no doubt did that, but she would never have told the neighbors -- and the neighbors' husbands and children -- about it.

Vulgarity is typical in all these shows because it's part of life, but also because the people in them know what's expected, and they want to deliver the goods. Situation intensifies emotion. "Big Brother,'' which follows "Survivor'' on CBS, puts 10 strangers together in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house for more than three months. You don't have to be a behaviorist to know this spells trouble, but you could describe it as post-modern Pavlov. (All we need are a few salivating dogs.)

Although we can dismiss such pseudo-reality shows as nothing but commercial entertainment, there lurks in them a ubiquitous dumbing-down of taste as well as moral judgment. We rely not on suspension of disbelief as we would in theater, but on a suspension of moral awareness as life passes before us. It shouldn't surprise (but it does) that one participant in the Swedish version of "Survivor'' who was rejected by the group eventually committed suicide -- off camera, of course, which was not very considerate to the producers, who would have loved it. (Guatemala last week executed a prisoner on live TV, so there's no doubt more to come here, too.)

Confessions and true life dramas can provide insight into the human condition, and sometimes even inspirational uplift. But we may just watch while fame annihilates shame.


07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
06/19/00: Wanted: Some ants for Gore's pants
06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate