A Celebration of Dysfunctionalism?

By Will Baker

A rather nasty flu strain is sweeping the country. This understanding is based upon news reports that I have read and first hand experience, last month I was flat on my back for several days suffering from it. And I am not at all sure what was worse; the fever, chills, body aches and cough, or the daytime television programming that I subjected myself to--I had a severe headache, therefore reading was out of the question.

I suspect that anyone who has shared an experience similar to mine would agree that sickness changes the reality of the afflicted individual. Perhaps because, when we are ill, our senses and minds perceive and process the world about us in a manner other than when we are well. For me, an extended period of illness can be best described as a "weirdness." Therefore it is possible that my recollections of this daytime television viewing experience are stranger than the actual event. For our sake I can only hope so.

It has been many years since I watched hours of television during the daytime. Therefore, when out of boredom I turned on the television from my sickbed, I fully expected to be served up a variety of entertainment including reruns of the "Andy Griffith Show," or perhaps "Leave it to Beaver" episodes, interspersed with old sitcoms, westerns or cooking programs. But what actually confronted me both amazed and alarmed me. A significant portion of the programming was dedicated to talk shows featuring highly provocative, yet mostly inane content. The language was coarse, and it seemed clear to me that the producers had taken great pains to create a dynamic whereby conflict was created between the guest panelists and the studio audiences. For example, the panel on a show by the name of "Rikki Lake" featured six women and their mothers, all over weight and very scantily clad. The panelists were afforded an opportunity to explain their modes of attire. After which the studio audience was provided with airtime, which they used mostly to hurl insults at the panelists. Based upon the multitude of "edit bleeps," it was clear that this exchange could be characterized as in excess of lively. The show climaxed with each of the panelists being ushered off stage so that free "make-overs" could be provided them. The message being if you look good you will feel good.

A show by the name of "Montel" featured a panel consisting of unmarried parent couples with paternity issues. Each of the men claimed that they were not the fathers of the respective children. However, after much prodding, cajoling, and trading of insults, they all agreed that, even though they had no legal responsibility to do so, they would make an effort to be more present in the lives of these clearly dysfunctional families. This show ended with the host presenting each of the men with the results of blood tests proving that they were indeed, most likely the fathers of the children, at which point more on-air conflict ensued. I am not at all certain what this show's message was intended to be.

After a bit of nausea induced channel surfing, but whether the nausea was induced by the content of the above referenced programming or the flu I am not sure, I came across "People's Court," a court room drama program. Evidently the litigants were paid by the producers to air their dirty laundry for the benefit of the viewing audience. I will not bore you with the details, but suffice to say that these folks presented their litanies of woe in a manner, which seemed to me to be neither civil, nor entirely truthful. The "judge" rendered verdicts, and then microphones were thrust into the litigant's faces, clearly in the hopes that additional bits of titillative dialogue would be uttered. Coincidentally, later in the day a panel of these television judges was interviewed on another program and the consensus of the group was that the American people had a need to be told "what was right and what was wrong." Hence the value of this type of programming. As an aside: I find this to be an interesting conclusion and wonder what the corresponding implications might be.

For some time now I have been aware of the existence of this type of shock programming. However I had no idea that it constitutes a significant portion of daytime television content. And the fact that I was viewing syndicated content leads me to believe that this is not a regional aberration. No, I suspect that this is the nation-wide norm. And make no mistake, the producers are not cramming this content down our throats while they hold us down and we kick and scream, twisting to get away, no…not at all. It seems to me that this is a case of "give the people what they want."

But who is watching this stuff, and why is there a market for it? At the risk of sounding like an elitist, I was struck by how similar most of the panelists that participated in these various programs were to one another. To a person these were folks with issues. Based on how they presented themselves and the stories that they shared it seemed to me that they might very well represent an underclass of American society. But, by providing them with compensation, have the producers placed them on display, exploiting them like exhibits in a zoo? Or do the folks watching these daytime shows feel a sense of connection with them in much the same way that I sometimes identify with callers to the "Larry King Show." As I write I can still see the manner with which these folks comported themselves. And for what this situation may imply, this memory bothers me at a visceral level. But again, who were my fellow viewers? We couldn't all have been bedridden with the flu, or every commercial would have featured various elixirs and potions aimed at relieving us of our symptoms.

I suspect that the viewing audience that regularly tunes into these shows can be broken down into two categories: those that feel a definite sense of connection with the content being aired, the underclass, and those that are just stopping by to see how the other half lives. Either way, it seems to me that this is not good news. The possibility that a significant target audience may exist, comprised of these panelists' peers, is certainly no comfort, nor is the possibility that folks are simply tuning in to enjoy the misery of others. But what does this mean? At the very least it could be anecdotal evidence that, as some would suggest, the fabric of our society is unraveling like the sleeve of a cheap sweater. But what can be done about it? It seems to me that these television programs are simply reflecting back to us what we have become as a society. Some folks would probably like to censor the producers and have them pull these programs off the air. I believe that that would be utterly pointless, counterproductive and possibly unconstitutional. It seems to me that this would be akin to painting over our reflections in the mirror because we do not like the image that is peeking back at us. Or maybe we could choose not to celebrate dysfunctionalism. Some folks believe that perhaps we could exercise the significant power we possess as consumers to effect change in this materialistic society in which we live. I wonder how the sponsors of these programs would react if they received expressions of dismay and outrage at the content that they were peddling. And then imagine their reactions if sales declined.

This situation brings to mind an old Chinese proverb: "three feet of ice happens over more than one cold day." Implying that most situations develop over an extended period of time, are more complicated than they appear, and require time to reach resolution. But I remain optimistic. For history has show time and again, that in a democracy, if folks are not satisfied with who and what they are as a people, they can change. And it seems to me that there is opportunity and change in every moment. However, while I wait patiently for society to engage in this debate, I shall fortify my video collection. So in the event that I am ever driven to daytime distraction again, I shall have other options.


 (Essay Collection)