What a joy to be asked to write a sermon. No wonder vicars and priests have for so many centuries ignored the tsunami of counter-evidence about virgin births and miracles and encouraged their “flock” to keep coming along week after week.
There is a strange group of people who hate my work but still insist on seeing and reading all of it (hello again, thanks for tuning in). They often accuse me of “sermonising” by which I think they mean lecturing long-windedly and with the absolute conviction that I am right. I strongly suspect for many of them my confidence in my own powers of research and deduction would be less horrifying if I had the common decency to grow a penis.
The religious sermonisers don’t need research or deduction as they have the luxury of faith to hang their certainties on. Faith is a bizarre virtue, aliens would land and ask “These humans seriously think they’re better than others because they choose to irrationally believe an eclectic hodge-podge of ideas about an eternal soul and a man whose wife turned into salt? They’re clearly not an advanced life form, save a couple for the zoo and figure out if the rest can be ground up into baby food.”
Of course the fun part of sermonising isn’t the complete conviction at all – it’s the long-windedness, which rather explains why I still haven’t broached my main subject even though we’re into paragraph four already. Reality TV.
T.S.Eliot said “humankind cannot stand very much reality”. He also said “only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”, which is very bad advice if you’re on a National Express bus. The trouble with reality TV though, is that it just doesn’t involve enough reality.
The genre started it’s recent explosion (it had existed at a quieter level with shows like Seven Up for decades) with Big Brother, a brilliant premise – put a group of random strangers into a house and see what happens. What happened was the producers couldn’t handle the stress of wondering if anything was going to happen and took matters into their own hands. They didn’t choose random strangers, they chose the group of people they considered most likely to start fighting or fucking. And then they told them if they didn’t build a tower out of drinking straws in twenty minutes they wouldn’t eat. Forget “Big Brother”, it should be called “Weird Producer”.
These days the genre is dominated by shows about “experts” solving “ordinary people’s” problems. And in this format the producers can rest even easier because the script is essentially pre-written. All they need do is find people to play the roles correctly or just fudge it if anyone breaks role.
Act one: person with a problem, “famous” expert shows up, delight. Act two: early stages of transformation go well. Act three: it gets tough, there’s crying. Act four: happy ending. How ironic that the genre supposed to show us an unpredictable slice of real life ends up following a plot arc that Shakespeare would have recognised and considered dull.
In case you’ve missed any of these masterpieces here’s a quick run-through of some of the shows I’ve caught lately. What Not To Wear: solve your confidence problem though floaty tops. How To Look Good Naked: solve your confidence problem by taking off your floaty top. Extreme Makeover: solve your confidence problem through Botox and make-up. Supernanny: solve your child’s behavioural problems through wall charts and a naughty step. The Biggest Loser: solve your weight problem through tyre-rolling and kettle bells. World’s Strictest Parents: solve your unruly children problems through volunteering and someone else’s extreme religious views. Tool Academy: solve your unpleasant boyfriend problems through blazers and therapy. The Naked Office: solve your business development problems through nudity. Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares: solve your restaurant problems through swearing and menu simplification.
In reality TV, unlike in actual reality, all problems can be solved.
Once in a while real reality intrudes on the carefully-scripted plan. There’s an early episode of an unruly children show where the 2 year old girl who seems unresponsive to stern telling offs turns out to have a hearing problem. This is real life, some children are “naughty” but others have real medical reasons for behaving badly or developing slower and sometimes a specially marked step isn’t going to solve anything.
Contestants on The Biggest Loser sometimes have to drop out because of health problems that prevent them participating in grueling exercise programs. It’s usually glossed over as quickly as possible but the truth is still in there – for many people the message that overcoming obesity is just about positive thinking is a deeply unhelpful one.
A woman on The Naked Office didn’t fit the costume provided for her for one of the challenges. There’s a real issue – how is your body confidence affected by being told that your size isn’t available? They could have suggested she participate in her own clothes but instead in an act of deep unpleasantness that can only result from paranoid sticking-to-the-script she was sent home and then criticised for not participating.
There must be hundreds more on the cutting room floor. Clips that didn’t fit the shape of the show that had already been decided. The improve-your-relationship shows where a couple reveals a history of violence and the expert calls the police. The cosmetic surgery show where the results don’t live up to expectations or the restaurant that goes out of business despite the fucking refurbishment.
Sadly when it comes to the messages people pick up from these shows, as Mark E Smith said “The three ‘r’s are repetition, repetition and repetition”. So we’re told: cosmetic surgery makes you happy, stripping off is empowering, bad boyfriends can be transformed if you stick with them, kids just need a firm disciplinary system and some stickers. These are not messages we should accept unquestioningly. They are solutions that may fit one individual but not another. And the “positive mental attitude conquers all” message has a dark flip side played out all too often in the tabloids. If you can choose to win, then life’s losers must by definition have chosen their fate too. Useless benefit-scrounging scum…
World’s Strictest Parents should be hauled up in front of the Advertising Standards Authority for the name alone. Unless they’re actually prepared to send the boys to work eighteen-hour shifts in mines and publicly flog the girls if they flash an ankle in public it should be re-named World’s Strictest Quite Reasonable Middle Class Parents.
Instead we get these rather stern but loving families with an emphasis on volunteering, chores and religion pitted against disrespectful, stoned, mini-skirted British teenagers. I love it. I am rooting for the teens.
The host families often insist the teens adhere to cultural gender roles – the girls are expected to serve food, the boys to do “yard work”. They expect the British teens to dress modestly, pray and attend religious services. They sulk and chain smoke and answer back.
No doubt the best bits are left on the cutting room floor. The bits where the pierced slacker teens hit back with blunt reason. “Why am I supposed to be respectful when you treat your wife like a servant, mate?”. “How is that being moral though? If you’re just doing stuff cos you’re afraid of going to hell?”. “Yeah but it’s pointless cos there is no God, is there?”. That slice of reality would be a sermon the world could really benefit from hearing.