Reality TV's Redeeming Quality

This page includes affiliate links.

It’s been a long day. I’m tired. Flopping down on the hotel bed in <insert your favorite foreign country here>, I flip through the TV channels hoping to find something in English or that I can follow in the local language. Lately, it seems I’ll invariably stubble onto some American-produced reality TV tripe like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (I really shouldn’t encourage them by linking to it, but at least IMDB users are currently giving it a 2.5/10).

Every time, my internal monologue screams, “Really!?! From everything we as a country could choose to export, we choose this?!? WT×!’ A little bit of me then dies.

All this garbage does is reinforce negative stereotypes, just like what we get from some of the foreign media we consume (as much as I love Top Gear).

If you don’t think this happens, let me try and convince you otherwise.

Killing Me Slowly

Whether we like it or not, pretty much all humans are programmed to make snap judgements about others. While I think it may be possible to “erase’ this “programming’, I think most of us (at least in the first-world countries) don’t suffer nearly enough to gain the empathy necessary to completely remove this innate reaction. The best we can do is learn to mitigate the consequences of the involuntary response, and I think we can get pretty good at that, if we try.

Analog TV

Courtesy of David Beach (itsbeach)

The issue with this snap judgement, likely developed to protect us in some bygone age, is that it colors our interaction with the person for some time to come. We also naturally look for patterns, applying what we learn from one case to the next. This does not serve us well when the snap judgement of one person starts to influence the snap judgements (or deliberated judgements) of other people. That’s why we shouldn’t feed stereotypes.

One thing I’ve learned traveling all over the world is the extent to which culture influences how one views the world. With media, context matters. It matters greatly. That’s why humor doesn’t always translate well. As I’ve grown to understand a culture better, their media becomes more meaningful because I’ve learned to appreciate not only it, but also them. When context is missing, very bad things can happen. For example, let’s take two examples I wish could label as reductio ad absurdm, but can’t because they are true:

I chose The Onion on purpose. Most Americans immediately recognize it as complete satire (or quickly do once they begin reading an Onion article). However, that recognition comes in part from our shared culture. It’s not always so obvious to others where the cultural paradigm is different.

For example, I’ve lived in Japan a couple of times. Living there, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that sarcasm doesn’t really translate, and as likely as not the sarcastic comment will be taken as a literal truth. At one point, I remember seeing sarcasm listed as a sin in a religious tract. It was sitting there next to things like stealing, adultery and murder. I assume it was a “lesser sin’, but it does represent a difference in how two different cultures viewed the same behavior.

Just to be clear, I decided a long time ago that while satire may be entertaining, sarcasm is pretty much only used to hurt another person. Whether or not you personally classify it as a sin, I really don’t think it’s good, social behavior.

So, how can reality TV have any redeeming qualities?

Trust me, it does.

Redeeming Reality TV

There is one case where I can find an uplifting reason to watch reality TV: when the snap judgement proves to be so wrong that one is forced to reevaluate the lens through which the world is viewed. This generally only happens on shows like The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent (and the numerous spin-offs like AGT), and to a lesser extent American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.

Unfortunately, these fantastic revelations happen during my least favorite part of the shows–the first few weeks where they are scouting talent. Apparently for ratings, the producers seem to be just as willing to skewer really, really bad acts as they are to celebrate amazing surprises. Yes, some of the people who try out are delusional. We really don’t need to make fun of them for attempting to follow their dream, as impossible as it may be. Such schadenfreude is not helpful.

Welcome to the Talent Show 2010

Courtesy of miggslives

So, I find it difficult to watch all the tripe waiting to have a Susan Boyle moment. And, they do come…

Clearly, it’s not an uncommon event. Yet, we continue to judge the book by the cover. I’m going to briefly cover just two additional acts, which I believe we may have somewhat missed here in the US market.

Charlotte and Jonathan

These two teenagers (16 and 17, respectively) appeared on Britain’s Got Talent in 2012. They had been paired by their singing teacher, and had clearly formed a bond. Jonathan was, honestly, really shy, and there was a reason. The following dialogue from the both them explains (preserving their words as much as possible):

Jonathan: I’ve always had, sort of, problems with my size since I can remember, and when I was in, sort of, primary school it was back then really that I heard, sort of, the mick taken out of me. And, it kind of damaged my confidence quite a bit. When, when people would say something to me, I just… it just take a little piece out of me, in a sense.
Charlotte: I’m quite protective of Jonathan. Like, if someone… if I was there and someone stood there and said something to him, I wouldn’t sit, I couldn’t sit there with my mouth shut. Before you make a judgement on someone, is, you really need to get to know them. It’s not–as cliche–it’s not judging a book by the cover. You’ve got, you’ve got to read what’s inside.
Jonathan: Charlotte’s been a really big help for me in terms of confidence and making me a better performer, and I really don’t think I’d be going up on stage today if I didn’t have Charlotte by my side.

You need to watch to see what happens next.

After a minor false start, they launched into an amazing rendition of The Prayer. It was stunning, especially Jonathan. Don’t get me wrong, Charlotte was good, but Jonathan was mind-blowing. My initial thought was along the lines of “Oh my gosh, Pavarotti has returned.’

The well-deserved accolades were given. Then Simon Cowell, in his pragmatic way, suggested that Charlotte would actually hold Jonathan back and that Jonathan should dump her. Jonathan had a simple reply, that spoke loads about their relationship:

Well… we’ve come on here as a duo. We’re going to stay here as a duo.

Acquiescing, Simon agreed, and the duo got four ‘Yes’ votes, moving them on in the competition.

I was really impressed with him, and the fact he stood up to me. His absolute first instinct was “no, I’m not going to dump her… um… I’d be prepared to walk away’. And, I saw that in his eyes, and I really respected him for that.
Simon Cowell

In the semi-finals, Simon admitted he was wrong. Their staying together was the best decision they’d made. Let’s watch their performance in the final:

Their growth in such a short time was amazing, and they truly were a partnership relying fully on one another. While, in the end, they didn’t win the competition, they were still offered a recording contract by Simon Cowell with Sony Music. Their first album, with the fitting name of Together#PaidLink, came out in the later part of 2012. A forthcoming second album, which includes the song Falling Slowly from the movie Once#PaidLink.

The thing is… yes, they are really good singers, but the thing I love about them is how they treat one another. They support and care for each other, even though they aren’t dating. They are going for their dreams together.

Choi Sung-bong

We now swing to the other side of the world–to South Korea. There too reality TV has its hold. At age 22, Sung-bong appeared plainly dressed on Korea’s Got Talent. Because of continual beatings, at age 5 he had run away from the orphange, where he’d been abandoned at age 3. From that early age, he’d lived alone on the streets, hustling however he could to survive. Through the help of a woman running a food cart, he was encouraged to take the GED equivalent for elementary and middle school, which would allow him to enter high school. From Wikipedia:

Choi was inspired to pursue a career in music when he was 14 years old, after listening to a classical vocalist at the nightclub where he sold chewing gum. He later found a teacher, Park Jung-So, who agreed to teach him without charge and helped him get into an arts high school at age 16. Choi mentioned during the Korea’s Got Talent audition that he was particularly fascinated by the sincerity of the vocalist in contrast to the usual type of music heard at the club. He became a musical autodidact and later pursued classical vocal training at the musical department of Daejeon Arts High School. Choi stated that his favorite vocalist is Andrea Bocelli.

Here’s his audition video. Note, the subtitles here aren’t always correct. For example, he wanted to take master classes, but couldn’t ever afford them. However, the translation is good enough to get the main point across.

Here’s another case of someone pursuing their dream, regardless of the odds. They may not look the part or dress the part, but they have their dream. Sung-bong followed his… eventually resulting in 2nd place in the competition and world-wide fame with an accompanying support system.


Our snap judgements can often do us a disservice. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool.’ We must always remember that eternal, divine spark residing in each one of us, for we are all brothers and sisters on this spaceship earth.

So, because reality TV does, occasionally, remind me of these truths, I’m forced to admit that it has at least one redeeming value. Hopefully, I’ll continue to find other news ways of being reminded, as well, because I really don’t like the tripe.

This article mentions items available on Amazon, and will earn this site a commission.

Jul 28, 2013 23:02

I agree about the irritation with the tripe (have you read Entertaining Ourselves to Death?), and also with the serendipity of some of these wonderful talents. Hadn’t heard of the singer from Korea; thanks for sharing!

Trev Harmon
Jul 29, 2013 21:34

Thanks. I haven’t read it. Should I add it to my list?