Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ethics 'n' stuff

I don't know what it says about my view of the human race, but I'm always more surprised when people on a reality show act like decent human beings than when characters in a scripted show do so. In a scripted show, I'm always aware that the characters can't be THAT bad. Even the cons on Prison Break, as self-interested as they are, will stop to do the RIGHT THING nine times out of ten.

I think part of the visceral thrill people felt when reality shows first came on the scene (and I'm largely speaking of post-Survivor reality shows, of course) came from seeing people be huge jerks to each other and actually get rewarded for that behavior. Sure, there was the rare curmudgeon on TV, but the very act of watching a show week in and week out makes that curmudgeon easier to take, easier to understand -- more LOVABLE. Complete social malcontents are hard to buy in a fictionalized context for many, many viewers. That's why someone like Carla on Cheers was practically a widdle bitty puppy by the end of the show's run.

Not so with a reality show. When Richard Hatch schemed his way to $1 million, screwing over his fellow players in the process (and, essentially, INVENTING the way the American game of Survivor is played), it was bracing. He didn't care about anything but getting that $1 million. Now that he's a known tax evader, we can say he cared a little bit too much, but here was a curmudgeon that was never going to be made likable, no matter how hard the editing staff tried.

And that made it a shock when, in season two, Colby Donaldson passed over a player he would likely trounce (and the fact that I can't be bothered to go look up that player's name) to keep Tina, his ally and friend, by his side made for such fascinating ethical talk. What good is loyalty in an environment that actually encourages the removal of ethics? Colby, of course, lost (and there was a good argument to be made that his creepy mother love played into his decision), and Tina won, but the show sparked discussions in the media and my college religion class.

Reality shows, I think, surprise us more with ethics because we're set up to believe that people deal with each other essentially unfairly. We watch television or movies to see a world where good CAN prevail simply because we don't really have a good sense that it WILL prevail in our own world. Even though they're heavily edited, reality shows take place in our world. People are playing the parts they went in playing (or had assigned to them in the editing room), of course, but, by and large, these are real people reacting to heightened situations as they (somewhat) realistically would. Granted, not all of us are stranded on islands or trapped in small houses or racing around the world, but the contestants on the shows are reasonable facsimiles of people we know and care about.

All of this brings me to Sunday's installment of The Amazing Race, which featured an act of genuine altruism. Erwin and Godwin Cho, the brothers who've formed an inseparable friendship/alliance with two single moms from Alabama and a coal miner and his wife from Kentucky while racing cleanly and consistently, knew that their Kentucky friends needed to finish in first or incur a time penalty that would likely cost them the leg (that said, the fact that the eventual last place finishers came in hours after everyone else seemed to argue against this, but we'll leave that aside). On this same leg was a Fast Forward, something that allows the one team to complete it to skip the other tasks and go directly to the end of the leg. The Chos successfully diverted other, less needful teams from the task, letting the Kentucky team decide to do it, then accompanied the Kentuckians just long enough to make it look as though both teams were going to race it out to see who could land in first. This, of course, landed the Chos in last place, though they were able to battle back remarkably quickly (they finished fifth, while a team that had one member who constantly made fun of the other teams was finally eliminated in a rare display of television karma at work).

One can argue that the Chos are simply trying to keep weaker teams in the race so they can easily win the final legs of the race, but their friendship with the teams they are allied with seems genuine (again, editing could be playing a trick). One could also argue that the Chos decided to be the "good guys" every race has (or were edited into such), but that also feels false, as the act is utterly without guile if so.

The simple fact, I think, is that the Chos did something GOOD, and that made this latest installment of the show that much more joyful to watch. There's a lot that could be written about how reality TV can expose the worst side of human beings, but when it exposes our better natures, it's all the more interesting and surprising.

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