That giant thud you heard sometime over the past two weeks was the sound of pop culture hitting rock bottom. While we’re blessed with living in the Golden Age of Drama — “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Boardwalk Empire” — we’re also cursed with some ugly dramatics.
The most disturbing example is “Big Brother,” CBS’ lounge-lizard version of “Survivor” in which 16 confined strangers compete to be the last one evicted from luxury accommodations.
There’s nothing wrong with the premise, but something is seriously messed up about this year’s cast.
According to realityblurred.com, which has the excruciating task of tracking reality TV, many of the current contestants’ behavior would have civilized roommates bolting for the door and heading someplace more tolerant — like a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
Aaryn Gries, a 22-year-old college student who appears to be majoring in playing with her hair, has vomited a flurry of offensive comments about Asian-Americans, black and gay people, insults unfit for a family newspaper. Spencer Clawson, a 31-year-old train conductor, went off the rails when he concluded that medical torture performed by Nazi doctors was beneficial and praised Adolf Hitler’s speaking abilities.
Kaitlin Barnaby, 23, one of the two Minnesotans in the house, said she likes gay people, but that they’re “untrustworthy in a game like this.” (The most offensive thing about the other local contestant, 23-year-old pizza deliverer McCrae Olson, is that he wears his University of Minnesota T-shirt way too many times without a wash.)
Most viewers don’t have a problem with these kind of comments — because they don’t know about them.
In the episodes CBS airs three times a week in prime time, such disgusting barbs are edited, presenting a whitewashed family focused solely on collecting the $500,000 grand prize. Only diehard fans who sign up for a 24-hour feed on cbs.com or watch two hours of live coverage of “Big Brother After Dark” every night on the TVG channel are getting the complete picture.
Some uproar has developed. Gries has been dropped by her modeling agency and a petition for the network to force her out has garnered more than 10,000 signatures.
CBS’ response? A tepid press statement that attempts to distance itself from the previously unknown crew they’ve turned into celebrities.
CBS had to know they were picking contestants with outrageous opinions and divisive personalties, hoping it would lead to great conflict and, therefore, great television.
It’s the same guiding principle adopted by MTV.
When “The Real World” premiered on the “music” channel in 1992, it was an innovative social experiment truly interested in bringing diverse people together to live and learn about one another. The show was instrumental in humanizing HIV-positive people in 1994 when it cast Pedro Zamora, who became a role model for gay youths nationwide. He succumbed to AIDS the same year.
But that was also the season of David “Puck” Rainey, a randy, rowdy bike messenger who pushed everyone’s buttons, starting by scooping up peanut butter with the finger he’d just used to pick his nose, and ending with a hate-ridden departure.
Since then, producers have scoured the country to find egotists, homophobes and alcoholics who then are thrown into a dirty hot tub together in hopes that sex and fistfights ensue.
At least “The Real World” is honest about its cast members’ characters. CBS wants theatrics, but in a controlled, PC way that won’t offend advertisers or viewers. The network either needs to reveal the contestants’ true personalities in prime time or burn that house to the ground.
Until then, shame on CBS — and shame on us for tuning in.