For a society that is putatively founded on the notion of human equality, Americans seem acutely obsessed with ordinality (maybe we think we’re immune to the “natural” (Darwinian) tendency to fall into a social class/caste system). Perhaps the most blatant expression of this is our hubristic tendency to regard the good old US of A as being numero uno in the world on just about everything, including, of course, chauvinism.
That is annoying enough, but this idea that we must always know who is number 1 in the manner of “the last man standing,” has seeped into our entertainment media in a distressing way. Last evening, on one of my local cable stations, came the announcement of a program called The All-American Handyman. Since The conveys the notion of singularity, It will consist of a contest between the various handymen and some handy women, to see who will be the one and only final “best of all” handy person. Not that we should give a flying pair of pliers about such stupid concerns (what’s next, The All-American School Custodian?), but this seems to have been an almost inevitable progression from the several, legitimately more interesting, and informative, home improvement programs offered by HGTV. Moreover, there is so often that qualifier—all-American—that sends the message that it is unnecessary to take such matters worldwide, since America is always numero uno in everything. [puke here]
In fact, it seems it is possible to take almost any programming idea, no matter how banal, and punch it up by turning it into a competition of some sort to get to the “best.”* Cooking shows for example, used to be about how to keep your soufflé from collapsing, or some recipe for eggplant, but shows like the Iron Chef, and copycats have turned cooking into competitions between chefs, and against the clock, or how to come up with an interesting recipe with a set of ingredients like fennel, sea slug, and pinto beans. As is typical of many of these kinds of programs, outrageous stupidity is the prime ingredient.*
The Queen of these types of shows is of course the long-running Survivor, and another program, whose name escapes me, but in which couples–around the world on some nameless competitive scavenger hunt that perverts the idea of travel to foreign places into a playing field for American self-indulgent silliness. There have been numerous spinoffs that have metastasized into programs like American Idol, a corruption of the idea of talent into who can combine some sort of heart wrenching personal story with an ability to scream bad music at earsplitting decibels, while a panel of mediocre and washed up talent searches for superlatives are pejoratives to characterize these contestants as the greatest thing since Michael Jackson, or as dead as Michael Jackson. Dancing, probably as ancient and activity as there is in human experience, as long been perverted by competitiveness, as in ballroom dancing contests such as Dancing with the Stars, in which the most outrageous, gaudy, narcissistic, plastic people managed to convert art into mere display. Adding celebrities to the formula, as in the inane dancing with the stars, so that some washed up jock, or politician’s daughter can, to use the form’s vernacular, “shake your booty” to a studio audience screaming on cue, only perverts the form further.
But the formula must be working. Producers don’t have to pay Americans hankering for their Warholian tenure of fame, to populate dating shows where guys compete for girls, or girls compete for guys, for dates and stretch limos, champagne dinners, and free condoms. But these are the media’s “beautiful people.” Of late, they seem to have found that the Yahoo contingent of the viewing public might be able to better identify with tuna fishermen competitions, bass fishing competitions, and that always reliable manly activity of crocodile or alligator hunting. Most of these shows involve guys [42.6] in boats with a lot of missing teeth and IQs to match, competing with one another for God knows what, apparently to demonstrate their manliness by, in some cases paradoxically, risking emasculation.**
Back in the early 1950s [57.3] when mostly people of means could own a TV set (although I would hardly call my family one of means, as it took four families to buy our 12” model) programming probably reflected rather broad demographics. Moreover, television programming, even in family and sit-com dramas seems these days less focused on our compatiblity than our combat ability. Maybe it is because these programs all more viewers to focus on who, or what, they dislike or detest. With contemporary niche programming there is something for everybody, from the Deadliest Catch crab fisherman show, to the Ice Road Trucker show to get those crabs to market or cannery, to Anthony Bourdain’s or any one of a dozen cooking shows demonstrating how to prepare and eat them. Hey, now there’s a concept in the raw: how about a show that sets up a contest to see which crab boat can get its crabs to which ice road truck to which cooking show first—always first, because first is best. Oh, and I almost forgot, the prepared crabs are then to be eaten by the winners of a dancing contest show in which theReal Housewives of New Jersey are paired with dentally-challenged guys from Swamp Wars, and the winners chosen by a panel of Kardashians. I know just what to call the show, too; move over Survivor, the American Idiot is about to kick your ass off the island.
©2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.8.2012)
*I’m obliged to note that Americans are not the only ones afflicted with this annoying trait. It is shared by Asians, or at least the Chinese with whom I have greater familiarity. I have Asian acquaintances who will invariably annoy me when, for example, we are at dinner and asking whether I think one dish is better than another, or some other comparison. They do it with clothes, cars, almost anything can be submitted to this compulsion for ordinal assessment. We also see it in the tendency to be a sucker for brand names and everything from Louis Vuitton purses, to name universities that are supposed to give your child that leg up over the competition. Other ethnicities appear to share this tendency, which in some sense might be abetted by capitalism’s clever ways of managing consumer demand preferences. An old friend of mine who worked in the Middle East with a number of members of the Saudi family, related the story about a shopping expedition in Beirut where in a jewelry shop one of them was perusing Rolex and other high-end watches. When the salesperson asked which one of the dozens you might like to see, the patron replied, “Which is the most expensive?” (obviously contemplating cost with taste and taste with class.)
**Although nothing quite compares with the incomparable Jackass movies forn sheer emasculatory creativity.