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Welcome to the freak show

Mary Squillace | Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Shrug it off as a guilty pleasure. Blame it on a faulty remote control. Flat-out deny it. But reality TV has sprawled across television programming with the effect of a 17 car pile-up at the side of the road, and viewers everywhere, in a collective rubber-neck move, have turned to gawk.

Sure, criticisms of reality television have become almost as cliched as the shows themselves. By now, we all know that we’re being ripped off with the mass production of cheaply-made shows. We’re even aware that “Trading Spouses” is just “Wife Swap” in a Fox’s clothing.

At the same time, the mesmerizing effects of reality TV are undeniable. So what is it about these shows that makes them addicting as a pack of cigarettes smoked over a can of Pringles? It’s certainly not the reality of the shows. We don’t tune-in to watch mundane details of our own lives reflected back at us. Instead, we hope to see the shocking and the outrageous side of “real people” – scandalize us, please! It is a fascination with the abnormal and the unreal that acts like virtual nicotine and keeps us renewing our weekly commitments.

Sickeningly, this fascination distinctly parallels another popular form of entertainment that previously intrigued audiences for over 100 years – the circus sideshow. However, where freak shows of the early 20th century featured physical oddities, today’s television line-up puts dysfunctional personalities on display.

In a sense, the explosion of reality TV has replaced Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy with Richard Hatch: Naked Fat Man and the surprising dexterity of the amazing doll-making gnome with the Snapple Lady’s furious attempts to lose 10 pounds. Instead of sideshows that offer a so-called “pornography of disabilities” for entertainment, reality television titillates with its pornography of eccentricities.

Step right up for our first act: the ruthless competitors. This strain of sideshow freaks contains the fiercest, boldest and most soulless. Whether they are telling blatant lies to gain The Donald’s approval, unscrupulously outwitting teammates or just sticking their faces in a bowl full of flesh eating worms, this act impresses with its depraved gumption.

For our second act, please follow me into our house of humiliation. Here, watch hapless geeks vie for the heart of a beautiful woman, as they are forced to display their lack of coordination. Look how scrawny and pale they all are! Want more delusions of self grandeur? Check out the B-list celebrities desperately trying to resurrect their careers, or feast your eyes upon the oblivious and talentless contestant screeching Whitney Houston in front of a national audience.

Our third ring features the divas, divos and otherwise divine lives of the rich and underage. Sixteen and going on spoiled-rotten, we’ll call it! This elite act consists of a conspicuous display of designer clothing paired with wails, whines and demands for Daddy’s attention (and the newest BMW model, of course), complete with teeny-bopper love triangles and warring cliques.

However, the real ringmasters of these exploitations exist outside of primetime television, and even outside of MTV. They operate under the guise of mediating self-help. Daytime talk shows like Jerry Springer and, more recently, Dr. Phil’s show inundate viewers with representations of the culturally grotesque. Jerry never fails to impress with his constant string of the sexually reckless, mothers who dress like their daughters, daughters who sleep with men old enough to be their fathers and other oh-so accurate portrayals of the lower-middle class.

Likewise, Dr. Phil, licensed psychologist, provides us with a perfect representation of the mentally unsound. His sideshow includes acts that range from the likes of Howard, who is only aroused by certain types of groomed hair, to a 22-year-old man who refuses to give-up his extensive Care Bear collection.

With this overwhelming variety of human anomalies, it’s obvious that instead of stepping right up at the ringmaster’s cue, we merely need to sit back and reach for the remote. For reality television brings the Coney Island sideshows to our very own couches, where we can comfortably watch the freaks parade by, channel by channel.

Contact Mary Squillace at msquilla@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.