But a bad case of the flu and a lackluster evening of TV left me with a choice of Big Brother or the Republican Convention. Both were reality-based, but only one held the potential for any surprises whatsoever, so I decided to see what I could learn about Big Brother.
Maybe I could figure out why the whole premise bugged me so much. The first thing I learned was how incredibly boring it can be to watch real people living their lives. This came as a big surprise to me, since I seem to be afflicted with a genetic flaw which renders me unable to resist any entertainment (I use the term loosely) with the slightest modicum of a plot. Expose me to 30 seconds of any old Saved by the Bell rerun (easily the lamest show ever aired), and I have to see the rest of the episode, just to see how Screech gets them out of their latest jam. So for a show to bore me, it has to be awfully darned boring. Which Big Brother was. In spades.
People do the dishes and gossip about each other. People sit around the back yard and gossip about each other. People hide in the bathroom and gossip about each other. The Weather Channel has better plotlines than this.
Second, I had an immediate and very unpleasant college flashback specifically, to a class called Group Dynamics. We were ostensibly placed in groups to complete a project, and we were each to keep a journal of our group’s activities. What we didn’t know was that the entire project of simply a ruse, we were deliberately given insufficient time to complete the project, and our final consisted in looking back over our journals and analyzing how the group responded to the overwhelming stress. Thanks for ruining my whole semester there, Professor.
Big Brother was similar. It deliberately placed “average” people in a pressure cooker, so that the entire nation could see how they would react. (I use the term “average” loosely. How ordinary can people be who voluntarily give up every shred of their privacy in exchange for the possibility of big cash?) It, like Survivor (be sure to miss the upcoming episode!), staged loose little competitions.
But these games, like my group project, are simply a ruse. Contestants don’t stay on the island, based on how well they perform in these competitions. They stay based on how well the others like them, or how manipulative they can be in maneuvering their way through the group dynamics.
And this, I realized, is what rubs me wrong about all of these shows. They pit people against each other in the most twisted of ways. “But,” you ask, “how is that different from football, or game shows, or any other competition that our society seems to thrive on?” Well, my friends, it’s very different. In any real competition, the goal is personal excellence. The presence of a competitor spurs us on to do our best. We push ourselves to see how well we can do, and our presence in turn pushes our competitors to reach for their personal best. We’re all in a sense “on the same side” in that we’re helping each other to grow. And the reward (victory, prizes, whatever) stems directly from the achievement.
These shows don’t do that. The competitions (if you could call them that) simply offer an excuse to put these people at odds. True victory or defeat is not tied to excellence in competition nearly so much as it is tied to deflecting the group’s hostility away from self and onto someone else, in an effort to remain the “last one standing” after everyone else is voted out of the house or off the island. Alliances are all temporary, as only one person can win. In the end, it’s every man for himself, eat or be eaten.
This is so horribly contrary to everything that is beautiful about life. God put us here to live in a “communion of persons.” We were created to love, plain and simple. We were created to find our only real satisfaction, not in manipulating others to get our way, but in giving ourselves to others in love. Happiness in this life comes from making others’ well-being our own, and from looking out for each other. Manipulative self-interest may bring us the cash in the short run, but it leaves us very bitter, lonely people in the long run.
And that’s what I don’t get about Big Brother or Survivor. Networks don’t run shows several times a week unless they bring in big ratings. Apparently, an awful lot of people are watching. They obviously like this stuff. Why? What on earth is it about watching people turn against each other that could give us so much pleasure? Have we drifted so far from our original nature that this twisted conflict amuses us? Has this sort of selfish manipulation really become such an enshrined virtue in our society?
Hey, maybe we need a different show. What if we put people in a house to see how nice they could be to each other? The challenge could be to overcome all of the petty irritations and jealousies to which our lower natures gravitate, and actually reach out in love to each other and cooperate in building up each others’ lives. The reward wouldn’t be money, but the God-given satisfaction that comes from living lives interconnected with others of His image and likeness.
Hey, wait a minute. I think there are already some groups attempting this. They’re called families. And I think all of those families would be better of if we’d flip off the TV (literally and figuratively), stop wasting our time watching other people’s lives, and start concentrating on our own. Because that’s a challenge worth winning.
(To read more Mary Beth Bonacci you may visit her website at www.reallove.net.)