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Thank You, Reality TV

There are good reasons why cultured, educated people are finding welcome escape in cheesy TV shows.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Meta Wagner
August 31, 2003

Lately, I seem to be suffering from a disturbing affliction: a cultural split personality. I'm a graduate of an Ivy League university, I hold a master's degree in creative writing, I teach at a reputable college in Boston. I've been known to read, and actually enjoy, works by European intellectuals. I live within a 10-mile radius of three art houses and go to independent and foreign films on a regular basis. So why, you might ask, have I gorged myself all summer on a television feast of people seeking true love (i.e., a large financial payoff), celebrities battering paparazzi, and five gay men making over the world, one straight guy at time?

I notice I'm not alone in my predilection for stimulating art and mindless TV. People who would never pick up a romance novel have snuggled up to Cupid. Those who cringe at the silly offensiveness of The Producers have cheered the bad-boy behavior on Celebrities Uncensored. What's happening to our sensibilities?

Actually, having contradictory cultural attitudes is nothing new; nearly a century ago, the critic Van Wyck Brooks proposed that the conflict between highbrow and lowbrow tastes was at the heart of American culture. As he noted, ``What side of American life is not touched by this antithesis? What explanation of American life is more central or more illuminating?'' So, from Vivaldi to vaudeville, from Romeo and Juliet to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, from Kandinsky to comic books, we've embraced both ends of the cultural spectrum. But something more is at work here.

Entertainment used to serve as a welcome diversion from daily concerns. Yet, just as life has become increasingly complex, intensifying our need for escapism, most entertainment no longer offers a relief from stress; instead, it's become another source of stress. Television is the only remaining stress-free entertainment zone.

Going to the movies, for instance, used to be one of life's great pleasures. But now there's such intense pressure to see a film the moment it hits the theaters that a simple outing with my husband to Seabiscuit turned into a high-stakes game requiring complex strategies and counter-strategies: Do we order advance tickets online for a fee or take our chances at the theater? Should we arrive a half-hour or 45 minutes early for good seats? Which line for snacks will go faster - the shorter one with the slacker working the concession stand or the longer one with the more proficient soda-pourer? By the time Seabiscuit was ready to tear up the racetrack, I was ready for a Xanax.

Theater poses the problem of artificially inflated expectations induced by exorbitant ticket prices. For months I'd looked forward to the critically acclaimed Metamorphoses on Broadway. But to my surprise, the star of the show wasn't a character based on Greek or Roman mythology, it was a 27-foot pool that the actors frolicked in. At $70 a ticket, nothing less than witnessing Midas walk on water would have dazzled me.

And concerts? Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Etta James at the FleetBoston Pavilion in May was an event. But once this 70-something grandma started lasciviously licking her microphone during ``Come to Mama,'' I wished I was home watching a rerun of The Golden Girls; at least Blanche Devereaux only talks about sex, she doesn't simulate it.

So don't invite me to Hairspray at the Colonial Theatre or to the Thomas Gainsborough exhibit at the MFA. And please don't call me Wednesday nights at 9; I'll be watching The Real Roseanne Show, where Roseanne Barr consults rabbis in an effort to be nicer to her real-life family, friends, and handlers. But, as she says, ``sometimes the devil wins.'' Now, that's what I call entertainment.

Meta Wagner is a freelance writer who teaches writing at Emerson College.

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