Tricky Surfing: Reality TV's Good Waves, Evil Undertow

Real World. Road Rules. Remember when these two shows comprised the entirety of “reality television”? Now, it seems that every cable channel fields multiple reality shows.  These programs generally cover a type of life or work or show intense and dramatic competition. We are drawn to these shows, watching them enough to perpetuate their presence on cable and network television. Why is this the case?

On one level, our humanity drives our interest. Scripture shows us that as human beings we long for community. Further, we are introspective, fascinated with ourselves in particular and our species in general. Community and curiosity make these stories interesting. We feel an attachment to the triumphs and failures, the normalities and the peccadilloes that play themselves out on screen. They are human; even more, they are us.

Another impetus to some reality shows is competition. American Idol, Project Runway, and a myriad of other programs center on the attempt to be the best. This in itself can be noble. When done properly, it is a celebration of excellence, of the virtues of courage, self-government, and perseverance. We seek the best to rise from the mediocrity, asserting themselves based upon their own talents and hard work. In doing so we justly honor them.

A darker side exists to watching of reality television. Compassionate human connection and desire for excellence does not always dominate. Often, we seek out shows in order to watch train wrecks. We desire a community of scorn. We wish to watch other human beings acting in ways that expose the worst of humanity. Whether we watch in horror or with a smirk, we too often view reality shows to build up ourselves at the characters’ expense. We don’t have addictions. We aren’t abusive, self-absorbed, caddy, or arrogant. We aren’t ugly, untalented—or at least not criminally naïve about it.

If we do not garner an improved self-image from what we watch, we seek it out merely to thrive on watching sin played out in others. The distance of a television makes it just a little less real. We can enjoy the rush of ugly words and uglier actions without suffering the falling aftermath. Watch nearly any MTV reality show and you’ll see what I mean. See what “John & Kate Plus 8” has become, and you’ll see how far even the actors themselves will go.

The answer to the problems of reality television is not abstaining from viewing these shows. There is much to recommend in these shows. We often see the best of human beings and receive practical teaching through their stories. Programs that show terrible actions and their consequences are useful, too. We can learn from them the sin to be avoided at all costs.

Yet we must guard our hearts against sin while watching. We must question our motives for watching programs and test our reactions to the tales being told on the television. Ask yourself, does this program aid or detract from my conformity to Christ, including my relationship with other human beings? We must be culturally savvy participants who do not blindly partake of all set before them, but who intentionally seek out the good, the noble, and the beautiful.

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