At what point does the appeal for donations by showing the reality of the needy's lives (and if that isn't an awkward amalgamation of words) move from helpful to hokey? Or--are all these give-give-give shows really doing good?
1. I loathe (okay, maybe dislike intensely) that program where the former model-turned-carpenter-turned-reality show star engineers the giving of a fantastic home--built and paid for by a corporation who garner more good will than any ad campaign could yield--to a needy-but-incredibly-deserving family. In the midst of an hour long program (minus commercials, of course), the plight of the family is dragged out for all of us to sob and sigh over: ah, the hard luck; oh, the disease; woe, the fickle finger of fate. At the end of the hour, the family's reward for having us slobber over their very life is a new house. Our reward is the relief those sobs and sighs afford. The network's reward is--well, you know what it is. This kind of a program is a 21st century version of Queen for A Day: may the most tragic--and entertaining--tale win and take home the crown, whatever it may be.
2. American Idol Gives Back: Is this in the same genre, only with better music and prettier people on stage?
I came in in the middle of it tonight, right about when Annie Lennox was doing something with poor black babies in Africa. That was only one of a number of Very Poor Folks trotted out for us, the viewing public, to see in all their misery and degradation. This, so that we would be moved to donate to the Idol Gives Back charity. We visited, among others, a New York mother and her two kids with Simon and a Kentucky family with Miley and Billy Rae Cyrus. I felt intensely uncomfortable, because of the way in which the meanness of these peoples lives was not only on show, it was the show. The camera-work was excellent, coming right in for a tender closeup of the ceiling fan with a bulb dangling forlornly; the sores on the New York mother's nose and forehead were technicolored; the Kentucky mother's teeth were--missing. Billy Ray Cyrus was practically gagging over the state of the Kentucky trailer. As the music dipped and soared, he stuttered that even when he'd called Kentucky home, he'd never seen such a place or knew that people lived like that. Simon, on the other hand, actually got in there and touched the people he was visiting, hugged them even, but all the while he looked veddy veddy British, stiff and formal and longing to Wash His Hands. I squirm right along with him, wondering what this family is thinking having this television star and his retinue, bright lights and camera, shoehorned into their tiny tenement. But then something changes for me. I find myself not so much anxious at these pictures of abject poverty, but involved with the mother and her kids. They have names now and faces and some dreams about what the future can be for them. They are, therefore, no longer the statistical They, but real people who I feel a connection to. My discomfort now is being matched by my involvement, my urge to participate, to act--to give back.
So here's the thing: when does outright manipulation of an audiences' emotions become necessary, a tool for teaching us, hoisting us up by the collar so that we are forced to look at the way the world really is? And if the only way in which we can be made to see is by sandwiching reality with starlight, is that such a bad thing? I don't know.