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Archive for Sunday, June 27, 2004

What people won’t do to get on TV

June 27, 2004

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I ran smack into the Zeitgeist on Page 60 of next week's TV Guide.

Turn there and you find yourself in the middle of a breathless "Where are they now?" on a bunch of reality show contestants. This includes Ryan Sutter and Trista Rehn, who became America's sweethearts after falling in "love" on an ABC reality show called "The Bachelorette." The network threw them a lavish wedding in December and broadcast it to an audience of millions.

So anyway, on Page 60, we find Sutter, a firefighter and paramedic, complaining about the cost of fame. By which he means fans who approach while he's on duty. "For people to come up and tap me on the shoulder while we're treating someone, it's rude. And very inconsiderate of the person who's sick or hurt."

Gee. Ya think?

I mean, let's get the picture here. You're lying on the pavement in pain, bleeding. The paramedic is maybe looking around for your missing hand, telling you to hang in there. And suddenly up rushes some giddy teenybopper in full gush. "Omigod! You're Ryan! Can I, like, have your autograph?"

Could there be any more perfect a sign of the times?

Leonard Pitts will present a lecture Monday at Washburn University in Topeka. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Washburn Room of Washburn's Memorial Union.

And here, I will dutifully trot out Andy Warhol's famous prediction that in the future, everyone gets to be famous for 15 minutes. But Warhol also made a less famous observation: movies run our lives. "They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it."

All of which is even truer of the small screen, I think, than the big one.

We invent television and television invents us, tells us what to want and who to be. It's an endless cycle that has spawned a pop culture brimming with shallowness, emptiness and a stupidity so profound as to be unprecedented. I say this as someone who's seen every episode of "Gilligan's Island."

The difference between that era and this one is that then, you usually became famous for something you did -- acting, for instance. But these days, you're just as likely to become famous for something you "allow," for your willingness to let a TV camera poke, with proctoscopic invasiveness, into the most intimate regions of your life.

Want me to go on "Maury" for a DNA test to determine which of my bed partners fathered my child? Sure. Want me to hash out the details of my nasty divorce before a national TV audience? Fine. Want me to bed a perfect stranger or marry someone picked out for me by my kid? No problemo.

If there is any reticence in these people -- not to mention privacy, dignity or self-worth -- it's not readily apparent.

What is apparent is our Pavlovian relationship with the television camera. You sense this sometimes in watching people outside the "Today" show studio squeal on cue when the light goes on. Some of us seem to think being seen somehow validates us, makes us matter more than we otherwise would. It's as if getting on camera were so important that the "how" of it hardly matters.

So if you can't sing or dance, just talk about committing incest with your brother. It's the same difference, right?

Watching these people, you'd think anonymity was fatal.

Small wonder modern pop culture is shot through with counterfeit celebrities, nobodies who became somebodies through their sheer, desperate willingness to open themselves wide. Private becomes public until the line between is erased, until people can't tell where the one ends and the other begins. Until you wind up with some clod standing over a paramedic asking for his autograph.

I won't ask you to feel sorry for Ryan Sutter who, after all, participated in making his life a show and made a lot of money for it. I will ask you to feel something for the guy who lies there bleeding while Sutter shoos away the fans.

And to pity all those who fell through the screen, lost themselves and forgot:

Reality is not a show.




Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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