20 Apr

The Amazing Race: How reality programming feeds our fears of insignificance and death.

Competitions and races are a component of virtually every ‘reality-based’ program we watch, from the Food Network (why must the chefs compete within a 20 minute time limit with unheard of and unappetizing ingredients?) to The Amazing Race. Time is of the essence and competition is everything. Overwhelming odds, injuries and emotional meltdowns only add to the drama and appeal. After more than a decade I ask myself why people keep watching. But what exactly is the appeal of these formulaic shows? The producers would no doubt say that it is part pure entertainment and part inspiration. If this 600 pound guy can get fit and lose 300 pounds, so can you. If a chef from a small-town restaurant can beat out one from New York City, then maybe anything is possible. The producers would no doubt say that it is part pure entertainment and part inspiration. If power is what you seek, you can watch Survivor for tips on Machiavellian-caliber strategies, where integrity is only a liability. So are these shows just harmless entertainment at worst and inspirational at best? I don’t think so.

I normally don’t really watch enough of these programs to think about weighing in on their social and psychological meaning. But last year my elderly mother came to spend the last six months of her life, and at the end of the evening when I was too tired to do anything else, I watched TV for an hour before bed. It was then that I began to realize that not only were these shows not relaxing, over time they made me tense. They were filled with people who were completely unrealistic about their abilities. And most of them seemed quite unhappy. Somehow they equated being picked for the program with actually having the ability to be the most successful person competing. Often they were clearly chosen because they would fail, or because they represented a certain demographic, e.g. Gay, Struggling Single Mother, Young Rebel with tattoos everywhere. They all seemed stunned when they lost—and desolate.

Worse than encouraging these contestants and hundreds of thousands like them whose reach exceeds their grasp, is the underlying theme that runs through all of these shows: Run—run as fast as you can. Whatever you do, don’t stop. Once I observed this, I wondered what everyone was running from. Then I saw the obvious. They were running from being ordinary their whole lives and then dying. Which is really the human condition. We all know in our hearts that few people possess the necessary combination of talent, luck, ambition or, in some cases, ruthlessness and greed, to become famous. Or even to be financially well-off. Yet for some reason we have rejected the notion of a life filled with honest labor, devotion to family, and good works as a life well-lived that will bring us peace when it is ending.

Instead we are obsessed with money, power and denying both the aging process and death. What’s particularly sad is that it is not only those who are truly getting old who have these fears. It is the young. The stave off their fears of death by buying things they can’t afford, taking momentary pleasure in their new furniture or move-in ready house with granite counter tops and stainless-steel appliances. If they can’t afford these things they feel like failures and are miserable. Granted, my description does not apply to everyone. I am not saying that there are no inner-directed young people living meaningful lives. I am only saying that the number of people who sit doing very little while watching people dance, cook, re-decorate, and eat worms, always in a competitive, time-limited framework, is somewhat disturbing.

These timed, frenetic and bizarre competitions are indeed exhausting—which perhaps brings relief to the majority of viewers will never actually attempt these tasks themselves. Understanding this, they can kick back and take vicarious pleasure in others’ success or failure. What the contestants and the viewers have in common is that they share the same fears. They are terrified of being ordinary, which has become equated with being nothing– and then dying. What this says to me is that day-to-day life has insufficient meaning to sustain the average person.

Watching these programs in small doses is harmless, of course. In fact, I found myself initially absorbed and happily distracted by the fast-paced competitions laced with human interest stories. However, the more you watch these shows the more obvious is both their formulaic nature and their shameless attempts at manipulating the viewer. As a consistent part of our daily lives they add little to nothing and only perpetuate our worst fears—even though this is occurring outside of our conscious awareness. People feel life slipping away as they engage in activities that are not meaningful. It is the slow, insidious sapping of meaning in our daily lives that has led to our combined social ills. The programs I am talking about did not create this situation, yet they pander to increasing feelings of insignificance and fears of death. Those who fear death are those who have not lived. And therein lies the problem. Or if you are a reality television producer, therein lies the profit.

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