Maury Povich. Robert Irvine. Jerry Springer. Steve Wilkos. Montel Williams. Morton Downey Jr. Geraldo Rivera. Jeremy Kyle. Trisha Goddard. Vanessa Feltz.
These are the heroes of tabloid television. The strange voyeuristic allure of trash TV kind of makes for a weird viewing experience, mostly because of the pure schadenfreude that comes oozing out from watching ratchet girls fight over their unfaithful partners, or dysfunctional families duking it out like rabid obese animals. It’s gotten to the point where even admitting that one likes these shows aren’t met with immediate scorn, but sometimes laughter and approval, mostly in respectively ironic veins. Now-infamous lines like ‘you are NOT the father’ have become schoolyard jokes just as quickly as something like ‘pants on the ground’ or ‘why you ignorant?’ (The latter line is from a South Park episode involving Michael Jackson and his son Blanket, if I remember correctly)
We love seeing ugly, dysfunctional people get their comeuppance. Who doesn’t love a public execution, or familiar bloodbath on a stage while NOT being a Shakespeare play? There’s a sense of personal moral affirmation that comes from seeing this nonsense play out, and knowing it’s all (allegedly) real makes it all the more titillating. It’s hard to not enjoy a bloodbath, especially when your moral superiority kicks in. I’m more than guilty of enjoying this kind of spectacle; in high school, on those rare days when I didn’t go to school due to buses being cancelled or sickness bringing me down a peg, I’d stay home and watch Maury, relishing in the absurdity of it all. It’s hard to pinpoint the wording or phrasing for this, but shows like that have an ability to, for better or for worse, drag you into the immediate drama of the featured conflict.
I recently was hit with a brutal triple-takedown of illness that had put me out of complete commission for an entire week. I didn’t write, work, or really do anything. Except watch Jeremy Kyle clips on Youtube.
From what I’ve been able to gather, Kyle is a former radio presenter who now has a successful gig presenting his synonymous talk show. A kind of British Jerry Springer, if you will. Now, as someone who enjoys watching trash TV with the same level of enjoyment I grant so-bad-their-good movies, I actually found myself, for the first time, with a legitimate sense of repulsion from watching this particular show. I’m not sure why, but having Cockney-tongued lads and lasses duke it out with cheating partners and abusive parents really made me uncomfortable. Sure, the fact that everyone sounded like they had melted marbles in their mouths 24/7 certainly didn’t help, but it really felt like there a gnarly sensibility at play here. While shows like Jerry Springer and Steve Wilkos are- or at least act like- they’re self-aware, Jeremy Kyle seems to really act like he’s trying to perform a civil service. Which merely exasperated the sliminess, in my opinion.
In my sickness-addled state, I came to a point during my marathoning of these clips that I actually started to agree with the host, this nice-dressed Brit with blonde hair and a confrontational way of handling this familial/relational issues. I started to become invested in how he was going to resolve them, I laughed at his jokes and impromptu moments of comedy. And although I was too hopped on cough syrup to actually do this, I’m sure I’d be cheering him on like just another audience member. And that’s when the veneer dropped like a fucking brick.
Trash TV has seemingly changed for me after this realization came to me. It hit me that, among all the chaos, Jeremy Kyle had suckered me into thinking he really was a moral superior and that he WAS performing a civil service by ‘helping’ these folks. I had bought into what I had previously watched with a mocking and ironic eye.
I’m not an expert on the current state of television. I’m not the kind of guy who can just sit here and predict what the masses will eat up next. I can’t refute an article that says that I hate myself because I hate the Kardashians (which I think is stupid). And I certainly can’t find the proper argument to make to improve daytime television. I’m just not that person. But I can say this: I have been to the other side. Instead of reading a book, I watched trash TV for a few days straight and slid into that kind of voyeuristic mindset that makes me feel not only better about myself, but also give my already slipping morals a much needed boost. I feel like I can now see what it’s like to just turn off your brain, like really turn it off and take in the most lowest common denominator entertainment around. And I can’t say it wasn’t fun for a minute.
But I now feel like I’m more wary of how these shows appeal to the masses. They present a kind of daily morality mini-plays to help the audience feel superior about themselves. The master of ceremonies-cum-public executioner comes along, introduces the poor-bastard-in-distress and relates their pain to the audience, and then brings out the transgressor and lets loose a torrent of quick refried justice. All this before lunchtime.
I’m not saying this shit shouldn’t be on television. If it rakes in ratings, then there’s no stopping it. Media these days feels like just a sketchy as New York in the 70s. Instead of peep shows and girl-on-girl action, I’m being promised a familial bloodbath on a fake-as-shit set. And who doesn’t love a bloodbath?