I don’t watch much television now, but when I do I live on the extremes. I’m a college man, so it’s sort of my duty to play the intellectual, at least as a façade. I’ll watch “60 Minutes,” which is edifying, and I’ll watch “Breaking Bad,” which is operatic and emotionally dense. Sports too, I’ll watch the Masters and probably more of the baseball season than I should.
Otherwise, though, you’ll find I’m tuned in to the lowest of the low. For I am also a trash TV connoisseur and believe it or not, I am unashamed (well, with the possible exception of “Cheaters”), because trash TV is a scapegoat often wronged, and if the consensus is to purge it from the earth, then I’ll happily be swept up too. To be fair, there is a general ethos of exploitation in shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” or “My Strange Addiction.” The bad reputation is founded there, in an undefined uneasiness that is in the air for respectable viewers of non-respectable television. That said, I think there’s a reason for the broad appeal, and possibly a redemptive value in reality television. Hear me out.
Watching garbage is the source of a very particular joy that is generally scarce in a world of reading, serious art, serious debate and quantitative research — a university setting which certainly defines the living sphere of students and indirectly defines the entire living sphere of graduates. In sifting through the digital trash, we see the circus that is the world. We lighten up. We finally let ourselves be happy, because we are given rare insight into humbler people with a greater plight and find, to our shock, that perhaps they are enjoying their romp through the world more than we are ourselves.
Trash TV is the perfect comic relief from a world in which we constantly tiptoe over the thin ice of sensitivity. We are forbidden to degrade, deliberately or accidentally, the imposing designations of race, class, gender, religion, sexual preference, ideological alignment and regional origin. For the most part, protective gloves are required for any kind of discussion of a background that is not one’s own.
You see, I think I have discovered exactly why mainstream America expresses discomfort with the reality TV shows they so ardently patronize: The subjects are almost universally somewhere in society’s basement. The nerds on “Geek Love” may or may not be socially disabled. The guests on “Maury” are more often African-American than we would prefer. “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” chronicles a family scraped from the lower reaches of the desperately poor. We like to say that the lower classes are the victims of rich swindlers, “systemic violence” or racial prejudice, because we are anxious about our own prosperity (among many other things). Trash TV makes us feel like we’re laughing at people for being unlucky, but I think we can redeem the whole enterprise by watching more closely.
When I sit down to watch reality TV, I find a contentment that I rarely find elsewhere. The poor, disabled, mentally ill or socially awkward seem to find a greater richness in their lives than we do in ours, and to see them in action is an incredible release.
The truth about trash television is that you’re not meant to laugh at the colorful characters on TV, for it is only possible to laugh with them.
Ben Moss’s tramp stamp says it all: “Don’t bash on trash.”
This version appeared online only at dailynexus.com on Friday, February 22, 2013.