Shanah Tovah! Gut Yontif!
This year’s Rosh HaShanah Pop Culture Pop Quiz is about to begin!
Please tell me which television show each of the following quotes comes from:
“The tribe has spoken.” (Survivor)
“This is the true story… of eight strangers… picked to live in a house… work together and have their lives taped…
to find out what happens…when people stop being polite… and start getting real…The Real World.”
“Sashay away…” (RuPaul’s Drag Race)
“In the world of fashion, one day you’re in, and the next, you’re out.” (Project Runway)
“I didn’t come here to make friends. I came here to win” (Trick question – ALL OF THEM)
And, last but not least, “Smile! You’re on… Candid Camera.”
These are all, of course, examples of reality television, a genre that is not all that new, but has certainly become an enormous part of our media culture all over the world. Reality TV shows are so pervasive that, not only are they broadcast much of the day, but they even have plenty of their own television channels devoted to 24 hours of reality programming.
Without realizing it, reality television shows have affected institutional, technological, ethical, and cultural realms. They show us the best of what humanity can achieve, as well as the worst. For every Great British Bake Off, there’s a Jersey Shore. For every Amazing Race, there’s a Temptation Island. They have redefined the understanding of what is “real,” and have changed the boundaries between public and private. The various reality shows all have one thing in common: a “professed ability to more fully provide viewers an unmediated, voyeuristic, and yet often playful look into what might be called the ‘entertaining real.’” 
A book entitled, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, explains that reality shows are distinguished from fictional television due to a, “fixation with authentic’ personalities, situations, problems, and narratives [which] are considered to be reality TV’s primary distinction from fictional television and also its primary selling point.”
They are also, supposedly, unscripted and spontaneous. Reality Shows are also distinguished from documentaries. Though there are noticeable connections to the documentary tradition in media, much of our engagement with reality shows hinges on our awareness that what we are watching is constructed and contains ‘fictional’ elements.”
The adults in the room hopefully understand that some aspects of what we are viewing are fake, scripted, or edited to create a particular narrative. I wonder whether our children grasp this irony. This inexpensive to produce, increasingly influential and popular segment of our culture has the ability to inspire us to better our lives, and it also has the ability to cause us to ethically devolve and regress.
I have been fascinated by the impact of reality television on our culture, particularly on our understanding of morals and values. The “Marci” part of me gets sucked into many of the shows, and sits on the edge of the couch with baited breath as I wait to see who will win or get eliminated from various shows. Personally, I have the most respect for and interest in shows which highlight real skills and talent. Who will have to lip sync for their lives on the newest RuPaul’s Drag Race? Which intricate tattoo will lead someone to be named the next Ink Master? What crazy insult will Gordon Ramsey come up with on the newest season of Masterchef?
The “Rabbi” part of me, however, is disturbed by the narcissistic, cruel, and petty behavior on way too many of reality TV programs, all of which is glorified for viewers to absorb and potentially emulate. This lead me to look into the genre more in depth, and ponder its ramifications for us as Jews, especially at a time of year which encourages us to look deeply at our own behavior, values, and relationships. Even the prevalence of that phrase I quoted – “I didn’t come here to make friends, I came here to win” – reflects a selfish, self-centered, and malicious way to interact with the world. Thus, let’s take a look at some of these reality shows, such as hidden camera shows, the family-based shows, the dating shows, and the do-good shows, and see what we can learn from these prominent components of today’s television culture.
For starters, there are many disagreements about when the reality genre began. Some argue that it was Survivor that started it off in 2000. Others believe that it was The Real World in 1992. In actuality, one of the very first “reality shows” was Candid Camera, which was created by Allen Funt and which ran from 1959-1967. Though such “gotcha!” shows might be considered lowbrow and cheap today, at the time, Funt’s covertly filmed records of real people in unusual situations were a respected and studied form of culture. Many scholars viewed Candid Camera as an important sociological analysis of Post-War America. Funt’s method was frequently cited or duplicated as a way of teaching responsible forms of citizenship both at home and abroad. The hidden camera was capable, for the first time, of documenting many of America’s institutions, from the judiciary system to a psychiatric ward. Funt’s show was celebrated for being a “privacy-busting truth-teller,” and it was believed to be an arena where popular culture and social science overlapped. In a 1976 interview with social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, Funt admitted, “I wish I could use Candid Camera’s humanness and non-threatening approach to help parents, teachers, or salespeople reexamine what they are doing to learn from their mistakes.”
Though Funt seemed to believe his show satisfied a higher social purpose, direct descendants, such as Big Brother, Punk’d, or Impractical Jokers, do not seem to hold much value other than sensationalism. Hidden camera shows today capitalize on voyeuristic tendencies within all of us, and they show us people at their most vulnerable, and often on their worst behavior. We see the face that the subject puts on in controlled settings, versus the “real” person inside that comes out when things get stressful.
The first family-based documentary was the PBS series, An American Family. The 1973 project featured the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, and it shared nearly a year of their lives as they unfolded before the lenses of the cameras. The series led to magazine covers, interviews, satires, and the Louds were held up as an emblem for the American family in the early 1970’s. Surprisingly, the show was quite scandalous – it was viewed by many critics as a manipulative sociological experiment in perpetual surveillance. One might wonder why any family would choose to participate in such a show. One of the sons, Lance Loud, spoke about his experience in a later interview:
“I remember one of the reasons my family went along with it was that we didn’t even get PBS in Santa Barbara. We thought it was going to be right up there with a trout fishing TV series. No one imagined it was going to be anything major. And literally, overnight, we went from being, like, normal nerds to much-criticized and nationally-vilified nerds.”
Also interesting is that the show did not spark imitators for many decades, despite PBS’s high ratings. We didn’t really see TV families again until we were given the gift of Jon and Kate, The Osbournes, the Hogans, the Kardashians, Chrisley Knows Best, and more, who all are more than willing to open up their entire lives to the public eye. Most are edited to be the most dramatic possible,
Most of the family members are egotistical and shallow, and many situations are admittedly fabricated by the producers. The mixture of these elements succeed in damaging the image of how a family should interact with one another, how we should talk to each other, and what is appropriate to be shared outside of the home’s walls. These shows challenge the Jewish value of Shalom Bayit – doing what we can to maintain a peaceful home.
Part of being a member of a family is learning what is worth ignoring or letting go of, and what is worth a discussion or a confrontation. As my grandmother used to teach me: “If he doesn’t put the seat down or put the cap back on the toothpaste, does it really matter? Is that what is really important in a relationship?” In a family-based reality show, these are exactly the kind of meaningless conflicts which are then exploited for the camera. Shalom doesn’t sell well, so it not broadcast.
The only time Shalom did well was on Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s short-lived show, Shalom in the Home, which ran from 2006-2007. I have plenty of other issues with Rabbi Boteach, but in this context, it was admirable to watch the ways in which Rabbi Boteach went into the homes of troubled families and helped them reconcile, rebuild, or heal the family’s emotional wounds. He taught much about respect, love, and values, often slipping Jewish terms or concepts into his teachings.
Then there are the dating shows, the first of which was The Dating Game, airing on and off from 1975-1999. Love Connection came along in 1983. Dating shows are so tantalizing, and are so perfect for television. They all tried to match individuals through evaluations of the suitors’ responses to silly questions. The shows were light-hearted and happy, and they tried to show the best qualities of the potential daters. One would assume that viewers would want to watch true-love blossom before their eyes, but, instead, the television industry learned about the viewer’s capacity to root for an unhappy ending. Some of the best episodes included tales of uncomfortable matches, dating disasters, after-the-date He Said/She Said segments, or even the anticipation of such a disaster.
Now, of course, schadenfreude is one of the most sacred aspects of reality TV, but it was still new 40-50 years ago. Today’s dating shows, such as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Paradise Island, and 90 Day Fiance, give us incredible access into the participants’ lives, asking the individuals for immediate impressions, reactions, and decisions based on the prospective dates they are meeting. The shows are heavily scripted and planned in advance. Both the men and the women on these contemporary shows come off as shallow, superficial, manipulative, and generally out-of-control. The portrayals of the genders are stereotypical and demeaning. Why anyone would actually want to date any of these people who really only seem to want their 15 minutes of fame is beyond me.
Jewishly, I know that the first commandment in the Torah is to “be fruitful and multiply,” (Genesis 1:28) and I know that God says, “It is not good for a person to be alone,” (Genesis 2:18) but the message that many of these shows convey is that you are not complete until you are properly partnered off. These shows portray single women and men as perpetually desperate and willing to do anything, even something humiliating, in order to find a mate. The takeaway appears to be that we have to throw out all self-respect and manners in order to finally snag a mate, at any cost.
Just when we run the risk of feeling all slimy and dirty from these less-than-angelic shows, we can turn the channel to one of the many “do-good” shows. These shows tug at our heartstrings, show us the power of the human spirit, and prove a person’s capacity to grow and change. This is also one of the oldest forms of Reality TV. Shows like Queen for a Day, which began in 1945, Strike it Rich, in 1947, and The Big Payoff, in 1951, were televised competitions based on personal hardship. The person who was worst off was the “winner,” so to speak. The audience would vote on who would win new appliances, vacations, or other items that were sponsored by advertisers. Today, I think of similar shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Undercover Boss, Intervention, and Pit Bulls and Parolees. We get a glimpse into someone’s life, the someone hopefully having a life which is much worse than ours, and this gives us a chance to feel better about our own trials and tribulations. We watch the production swoop in, provide tools and lessons which hope to improve the person’s life, and we all eagerly await word that the show’s subject will accept help, learn, evolve, and come away better than before.
These shows have a varied success rate with the people they help, and some have questionable ethics. Some even appear to leave their participants worse off than they were before they were on the show.
Intervention and Hoarders are powerful shows which theoretically have the potential to help many. They highlight specific illnesses or addictions, and take the viewer through an attempt at helping the sufferer find a way out of their situation. Critics are very mixed about these shows, as am I – are the show-runners educating viewers and helping the subject of each show, or are they exploiting real disorders for public entertainment?
The Biggest Loser and other weight-loss shows have been extremely controversial, as they have been exposed as fostering very unhealthy habits and even creating eating disorders in order to ensure the proper level of drama, the required weekly weight loss, and the best ratings. Previous contestants have later come forward, admitting to starving themselves, being drugged, or exercising obsessively in order to win. The behavior necessary to be successful on the show is not possible nor is it in any way healthy, and the show creates unrealistic expectations about timelines and the ability to maintain weight loss long term, as well as encouraging body dysmorphia.
In contrast to these shows with mixed levels of success, I find that the seasons of Queer Eye are the most exemplary, and they seem to have the right intentions and do their best to better their participants’ lives in myriad ways, and, frankly, it’s hard to get through any episode without crying at least once.
Nonetheless, I have two concerns with these do-good shows –
First, does viewing them unconsciously give us a false sense of having helped someone? Do we then feel absolved of performing an act of tikkun olam or doing a mitzvah because we have watched something inspiring on television? My second concern is that these shows have the potential to make us feel that it isn’t possible to change our lives unless it takes place in the public eye. We can’t settle a family dispute without turning to Dr. Phil. We can’t face an addiction without our family arranging an intervention for A&E. We can’t attempt to lose weight on our own – we need to be on a reality show to make it work.
One of my most favorite reality shows only aired for two seasons, from 2009-2010. It contained a fascinating twist which turned the typical expectations of reality shows on their head. And perhaps, once its conceit was revealed, it couldn’t really run any further seasons. Perhaps you remember the show called True Beauty. It seemed to be a response to the more negative behaviors generated by the reality shows which came before it. Contestants on this reality show believed that they were competing based on outer beauty. One season, for instance, was looking for the “New Face of Las Vegas.” The participants lived together, competed in a number of contests, like filming a commercial for Vegas, and one was, of course, eliminated each week. They THOUGHT that they were eliminated based on their success or failure in the week’s challenge. However, what they didn’t know is that they are being watched at all times by the judges, and that they are actually being judged based on their overall behavior. Each week, someone who had been unkind, cruel, unethical, or who had broken the show’s rules is brought before the judges and shown clips of their behavior. They were shocked by the revelation of the show’s true nature, and by the clear, visual evidence of their actions before their very eyes. The person who wins the show is therefore the nicest, most cooperative, and most ethical contestant.
True Beauty forced us all to ask ourselves very important questions – questions which are front and center during this High Holy Day season. This show, and really every reality show, encourage us, explicitly or implicitly, to wonder: How would we act under those circumstances? If we were secretly being watched, what would the cameras see?
Gossip? Insults? Underhandedness and manipulation?
Kindness? Altruism? Connection and friendship?
Ego, narcissism, self-centeredness?
Compassion, understanding, bridge-building?
Honestly, most of us are practically live in our own reality shows thanks to social media. Thanks to our addictions to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram, we are able to share the minutiae of our lives with our online friends, and I’m not saying that this is strictly a bad thing. Yet, major life moments are not real until they are “Facebook Official.” Events in the world can only truly be processed based on the responses they get on Twitter. We can’t visit an exciting location without posting a photo to all of our Instagram Followers. We can’t witness something funny without posting a snarky comment on Snapchat.
These events in our lives are certainly real. But our online personas are not necessarily honest. Just as the producers of the shows edit for the best ratings, most of us edit what we put online in order to project a certain persona. Now, I’m not encouraging you to write anything embarrassing or negative, rather, I’m asking you to consider what happens between each post, in our own lives and the lives of our friends. What happens between our moments in the public eye, when we are behind closed doors, when we don’t think anyone is watching.
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur remind us that there is a judge, watching our behavior. Some may prefer to think of that judge as God. Others might connect more with the idea of the wisdom of the divine spark within each of us.
Our souls know right from wrong.
We know when we have missed the mark.
We have an internal sense of morality and know how to compassionately treat other human beings.
Hopefully, we have not made it a habit of throwing tables upside down when we get angry.
Hopefully, we do not immediately call someone names and start tearing out their hair in a catfight when we are a bit peeved with them.
Hopefully, we have the wisdom to see through the smoke and mirrors, the creative editing and forced narratives both on reality tv and on social media, which are false, fraudulent, or even dangerous.
A Study run by the University of Pennsylvania, released in late 2018, Found a causal relationship between time spent on social media and occurrences of depression and loneliness. Our perception of the perfection of other’s lives, their carefully cultivated online personas, compared to our own, increasingly makes us feel bad about ourselves.
Psychologist Melissa G. Hunt wrote:
“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” she says. But when she digs a little deeper, the findings make sense. “Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”
This new year, why don’t we recommit to seeking out relationships built on solid foundations of connection and honesty. We can volunteer for organizations like Habitat for Humanity or Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries, instead of letting a television show perform the mitzvah for us. We should reach out to those in our lives who need support with mental illness, addiction, or trauma, and help them work towards recovery, instead of just ogling as strangers struggle on TV.
We should get out into the world and do good deeds, instead of just sitting in our protective, isolated living rooms and letting others do them for us. We don’t need Reality Shows to show us our moral or ethical core. We don’t need Reality Shows to tell us what is real or what is true.
We should, instead, listen for that quiet yet insistent voice within that knows exactly the right way to treat ourselves, our family members, our friends, our coworkers, and others. Each time we listen to that still, small voice, deep within us, And we act on its wise guidance, it is strengthened. We must allow that voice to grow louder and more powerful. The more we listen, the easier it becomes to hear it. We know, even when we don’t want to admit it, how to live with integrity, even when no one is watching or reading our latest post or viewing our latest video on TikTok.
Next week, on Yom Kippur, we will read from Torah portion, Nitzavim. In it, God gives us a choice – between life and death, between blessing and curse. This season of repentance demands that we confront these choices, to decide which direction we will turn this year. What will you choose?
I pray that we all choose wisely,
Even when we won’t receive recognition or “likes,”
Even when we won’t get caught,
Even when we won’t receive applause,
Even when no one, but God, is watching.
 Murray, Susan and Laurie Ouellette, eds. Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2009. P. 5.
 Ibid., p. 7
 McCarthy, Anna. “Stanley Milgram, Allen Funt, and Me.” Reality TV, p. 25.
 Ibid, p. 26.
 Ibid, p. 30.
 Kompare, Derek. “Extraordinarily Ordinary.” Reality TV, p. 100.
 Ibid., p. 102.
 Andrejevic, Mark. Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004, p. 69.
 Ibid, p. 71.
 Gray, Jonathan. “Cinderella Burps.” Reality TV, p. 260.
 Watts, Amber. “Melancholy, Merit, and Merchandise.” Reality TV. P. 302.