NEW YORK — For the past few years, America has faced a menace, one which threatens to undermine and corrode much of the best that the nation stands for. The government has been remarkably ineffective at addressing this peril, and though there have been plenty of warnings by various trustworthy sources, the threat to American society has remained largely unchecked. I am referring, of course, to reality television and the long shadow it has cast across American sets.
There were and are lots of things to dislike about reality television. There's the way it magnifies our already enormous obsession with the quotidian details of the lives and behavior of celebrities, celebrities who start on the B-list and work their way down into the lower regions of the alphabet. (I'm looking at you, cast of 'The Surreal Life.') There's the way it cheapens the hard work of the entertainment industry's creative types, especially the writers, by suggesting that formulaic settings, inane challenges, and the psychobabble that passes for actual insight from the contestants' lips is equal in entertainment to the plots, scenes, and characters of scripted television.
But perhaps worst of all is the way that so many of the reality shows seem to assault the dignity of their viewers - not only with the low-IQ challenges and Z-grade dialogue, but with the pernicious idea that human beings will do almost anything at all for a shot at a fleeting television career and a cash prize. 'Fear Factor,' of course, has been the particular nadir of this nauseating trend (in both senses of the word).
The result is that victory, on many of these shows, is automatically accompanied by a kind of defeat. It's true for the contestants, who've been humiliated physically and psychologically to reach victory. (The fact that the shows will generate 'conflict' or 'human interest' by featuring meltdowns, screaming matches, hookups, and other particularly loutish or extreme forms of behavior doesn't help much either.) But it's a real defeat for the viewers as well, who sit and watch these spectacles, thinking a little less of the human condition with every episode.
But, as Marc Antony noted after a particularly uninspired season of 'The Real World: Ancient Rome,' I come to praise reality television, not to bury it. And, like so much else these days in American culture, we have Donald Trump and Ashton Kutcher to thank for it.
'The Apprentice' has fallen on hard times recently, ratings-wise and quality-wise, but the fact remains that it started a trend: treating the contestants as skilled individuals who were competing for something of lasting and permanent, even dignified value. Though I remain dubious about exactly how much power Bill Rancic and Kelly Perdue exercise in the Trump organization, the fact remains that a job is a job, and 'The Apprentice' is - in its own idiosyncratic way - a job search.
There are lots of things wrong with 'The Apprentice' - you never really believe, for one, that most of these job applicants would be trusted to deliver the mail in Trump Tower, let alone build it, and Trump's own outsized personality doesn't really allow any of the contestants to come into their own (this especially goes for the winners - how much sense do we really have of Bill and Kelly as people? They're ciphers, by and large, destined to be largely faceless cogs in a massive organization.) Still, 'Apprentice' was a sea change in reality television because it was about more than just becoming famous and debasing yourself in order to get there.
Ashton Kutcher's series 'Beauty and the Geek' and the new ABC series 'The Scholar' mark, in my opinion, the next evolution in the tradition of the reality television show. They boast the same positive aspects that made 'The Apprentice' the kind of reality show that allowed you to look at yourself in the mirror after watching. In 'The Scholar,' a group of incredibly bright students compete for a college scholarship, an education that will affect the rest of their lives. (I'd add, parenthetically, that the series also serves as a stinging critique of this country's domestic and educational policy: if it's true that students as bright and hard-working as these are worried about getting a college education for financial reasons, we really have a problem.)
In 'Beauty and the Geek', the contestants are - not to get too Platonic about it - engaging in a project of educational virtue, where they strive to become better and more excellent people, to develop their capacities. (Yes, some of these capacities include hotness, but Rome wasn't built in a day.) Still, we've come light-years from a program dedicated to showcasing the worst aspects of human nature.
Not only that, but the shows are blessedly celebrity-free. 'Beauty and the Geek's host VJ Brian McFayden is, at best, a B-list celebrity; the host of 'The Scholar' is to the best of my knowledge a complete unknown. This doesn't hurt the shows at all; quite the contrary, it puts the well-meaning, talented, deserving stars of the shows - the contestants - front and center. It's hardly a coincidence that the one genuine star associated with these shows, Ashton Kutcher, has as of this writing never appeared on screen. Compare this to 'The Apprentice' or the new Tommy Hilfiger knock-off (to use a fashion term), 'The Cut,' where celebrities appear regularly.
I'm not entirely Pollyannish about the future of the medium; the fact that Paris Hilton's mother Kathy has managed to get on the airwaves with a show of her own, for example, doesn't exactly strike me as a good omen, and Martha Stewart's arrival in the fall is, it seems to me, a thing to be dreaded. But I'm hopeful.