Monday, January 01, 2007

Pop Culture 2007--UPDATED

I'll roll my eyes and link to this. Keith Olbermann is "in" for 2007? Count me out. Read the rest of the list and see what you think.

What is your picture of Americans? Do you see the families lining up at Target, smiling and excited to wrap presents for the kids, working hard starting a business or building someone else's business, taking care of children and parents, paying taxes and generally trying to be good citizens? Or do you see Americans as greedy consumers, materialistic and selfish, narcissistic, competitive, liars, cheats, sex-obsessed, celebrity smitten, murderous thugs just waiting to pounce on the next victim? The second picture came over loud and clear during the week that I watched cable TV. Since ridding our home of cable and TVs six years ago, I hadn't had time to see what defined the pop culture world. Last week, I was saturated in pop culture and it wasn't pretty.

Here are the shows that mesmerized me in a car crash kind of way over my six long days with digital cable:

A&E's Playboy: The Girls Next Door

MTV's: My Super Sweet Sixteen

BRAVOtv's: Top Chef

Because the seasons were over, the different channels were doing marathons of sorts. So, I got to watch multiple episodes. Let's start with the least offensive show: Top Chef.

Actually, this show is interesting from a leadership perspective. Cooking seems secondary to human relationships--which, I suppose, is the point. Do you watch Emeril for the recipes or because he's entertaining? Heck, do you buy Cook Books because you'll actually cook from them or because they're beautiful?

What was my take-home message from Top Chef? The same message I get overall from all the "Reality TV" series: ruthlessness wins. The reality TV craze elevates meanness, a cut-throat attitude, and emphasizes a general lack of civility. Reality series seem like modern gladiator matches. They are blood sports. Everyone loves seeing the kill. People thrill at their champion conquering all. At least no one ends up dead--physically.

Reality TV didn't start with Survivor. It started with Phil Donahue and was raised to an art-form by Oprah. All these shows traded in human misery and voyeurism. The people watching the "freaks" could feel better about themselves--I'm not that fat, stupid, ugly, mean, vicious, etc. I'm actually OK, went the thinking. Now, with Reality TV series, people can choose sides, label the victim, label the villain and follow the troubles and turmoils. People are edited into caricatures. It is hardly real, but feels real. Kinda like the news.

You would think that my least favorite series would by headlined by Hugh Hefner, but this being America and all, another TV series actually makes Hugh look like a pajama-clad innocent heartland eccentric. His series with A&E The Girls Next Door, features his three, current blond bombshells. The theme of this show is breasts and bunnies like food is the feature in the aforementioned cooking series, which is to say, that the T&A is coincidental. The focus again is relationships.

Unlike the overt culinary rivalry, the competition covertly plays out among the Hefner household. The three women live with Hef (who at 20, 26 and 26 look a decade older than their ages, but I notice this everywhere these days--so many women in their twenties look old. Is it the fact that they live like unpaid prostitutes that hardens them?) and seem to enjoy conjugal relations as well. That is never spelled out that I saw. An interview with Alpha Girlfriend Holly Madison confirms this suspicion.

While the two side-kick girls Kendra (sporty, authentic, craven) and Bridgette (girlie, educated, equally craven) approach the whole Hef-world experience as a job, Holly Madison sees herself as in a relationship with Hef. It is this sad delusion that is compelling and disturbing to watch. Hef's true matches are Kendra and Bridgette. As deep as a mud puddle and ever concerned about the business, Hugh Hefner is Playboy and the Playboy. Holly seems to be the only one hoping he is actually something more.

So for all the babes, boobs and booties, this show is about an idealistic girl who is used by a jaded old guy. Holly attributes Hef's cynicism to being hurt in the past. He's a kind and giving guy, who everyone likes, so Holly believes. But that generous nature is unmasked during this show. While he does seem superficially interested in the girls (he becomes visibly upset when Bridgette cries about being left out of a nude shower scene photo shoot for the magazine), he is not so interested in a deep relationship. While fully aware that Holly loves him, rather than return her love with loyalty, he chooses instead to keep things superficial.

At the ripe old age of 80 (Hef, in contrast to his girls, seems twenty years younger physically and has the emotional maturity of a fifteen year old boy) Hugh Hefner isn't exploiting the girls in his magazine or even two of his three life-mates. He's exploiting a girl who really loves him. She is no innocent, of course. She's a liberated woman. And she'll tell you that, if you ask her. Holly Madison is indeed a modern woman: giving herself away, hoping to buy love with her body, and swimming in denial. She wants a relationship and children and she has chosen a man incapable of loving anyone but himself.

I don't think Hugh Hefner intended to make a reality series so timely and revealing, but The Girls Next Door might be the most real, reality series around. That it so represents relationships in America these days is disturbing. I came away from watching this series, the same way I came away from watching a marathon of Sex in the City--sad. Maybe these shows are meant to be taken in bite sizes. Bon bons for the brain--sweet little nothings. Taken all together, they gave me a stomach ache.

And the winner of the worst of the worst: My Super Sweet Sixteen. The children displayed on this show make Paris Hilton look classy. This show features teenagers and teen life at its absolute worst. Imagine all the rotten children and dull-witted parents from The Super Nanny grown up and with limitless money.

The teens were terrible. Seeking glamour, hiring celebrity photogs , acting bitchy (boys and girls), and generally being ruthless with friend and foe. Big question: Who gets to be on the V.I.P. list? "Oh, I've cut Megan off, she thinks everything is all about her and is so like, totally ruining everything!!!!!" Tears, stomping feet, and drama abound.

But all this nonsense, begged the question: Where are the PARENTS?! And are they proud of these ungrateful wretched creatures? The whole thing was shameful. Naked, silicone injected Playboy bunnies were less shameful. The teens were nakedly materialistic and empty-souled. The parents indulged their obscene desires and coddled their temper tantrums over imagined injustices.

What can these kids hope for in the future? The only thing they lack is meaning in their lives. No spiritual connection, no real familial connection, the emphasis is on the here and now and immediate and the concrete.

Is this the consequences of the incredible wealth that has been built by very hard work in this country? Instead of the rare crazy rich people, with indulged, shiftless kids, there are thousands of these people. Will the tragedies of the Kennedys, the Vanderbilts, and even the Walton families be played out all over?

Worse still, will this wacky celebrity worship and emulation create a generation that takes the Boomer narcissism even further? As if that were possible.... I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the children of wealthy Boomers turn out to be Mini-Me's of indulgence, but to see it in action. Well, I'm still surprised.

All in all, America looks bad, if you judge by TV. And this is what the world sees about America. They alternately see these insane displays of consumption and avarice in contrast to the violence and depravity of New Orleans post-flood. What the world sees is poverty of the spirit and real poverty. Add to this the leftist spin about the War--showcasing our military as murderous, torturing thugs and it all adds up to quite a picture, doesn't it?

So is this picture what we really are? Superficial, rich, materialistic, consuming, violent, godless animals? No, I don't think so. That's not America at all. But that's what Hollywood believes America to be and so that's what we all get showcased on TV. After watching this garbage for a week, there was no more wondering why America is hated so. I found myself consumed with self-loathing, too. Who wants to be that kind of American?

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