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Extreme goes mainstream

Maximum shock behavior pervades TV as real-life antiheroes feed the public's thirst for 'truth.'

By Staff writer / May 2, 2011

Los Angeles

From Charlie Sheen's webcast riffs on drugs and sex to MTV's "Jersey Shore" to Bravo's "The Real Housewives" living out loud from Miami to Beverly Hills, not to mention Oxygen's "Bad Girls Club," a new entertainment genre is coming of age in pop culture media.

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Call it "Theater of the Blurt," or "Id vid" – after Freud's term for the primal, unfettered side of human thought – where extreme, unmediated behavior is packaged for maximum shock value, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

The key components of this upstart genre are over-the-top behaviors and language served up in what is often the slimmest of narrative contexts. Think Mr. Sheen's roadshow "Violent Torpedo of Truth," or the pell-mell pace of Snooki of "Jersey Shore," the housewives, or the dysfunctional bad girls.

"You could almost compare it to pornography," says Mr. Thompson, not only for its deliberately titillating content, but for the lack of reliance on traditional narratives to keep viewers engaged. "In porn, there is always this shred of context, but really what people tune in for is the extreme behavior, not the character's back story."

An addiction to fast and flimsy

The comparison may be apt, says psychologist Scott Allison, coauthor of "Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them." He suggests that viewer interest in such runaway behavior as Sheen's boasts or one "bad girl" slicing another's hand with a handbag is a form of addiction. "This pervasive craving for the weird and dysfunctional is like being addicted to [fast food]," he says. "These often freakish and dysfunctional people give us shock or emotional jolts."

The genre clearly plays on people's timeless fascination with the foibles of the rich or famous, but "technology is the accelerant," Thompson says.


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