There were plenty of notable moments on last week's episode of "Celebrity Wife Swap," which starred actor and reality mainstay Gary Busey, disgraced Evangelical mega-church pastor Ted Haggard, and their respective spouses.
But perhaps it was the moment when Busey, along with Busey's buckskin-and-headress-sporting spiritual advisor, "Indian Bob," and Haggard's wife, Gayle, were sitting in a circle on Mr. Busey's lawn participating in a Native American "soul-cleansing ceremony" when the truth became utterly and tangibly clear.
Reality shows are finally proud of their own circus, and they're unafraid to let us know.
Indeed, the time has come to stop pretending these shows actually care about the subjects involved in any sort of human way. In fact, at certain points, one almost forgets that we're dealing with actual human beings existing in the real world. Want to counter the Haggard children's heartfelt efforts to rebuild their family after a debilitating scandal with shots of Gary Busey's Mickey-Mouse-voiced alter-ego struggling to strap his child into a high chair? No problem! Just dress everything up with plucky string music and jump cuts. Like when Ted Haggard addresses Gayle's discomfort with Indian Bob's "soul-cleansing" ceremony by saying: "I think the blood of Christ does that thoroughly." -- cue the happy tunes!
Whereas shows like "The Jersey Shore" and "The Bachelor" were once considered guilty pleasures, they are now so ubiquitous -- and pull in such high ratings -- that it's difficult to know whether Americans should continue devouring these shows in private, with tubs of popcorn and a tinge of embarrassment, or if we, as a nation, should collectively acknowledge that watching deeply troubled human beings make fools of themselves on national television has simply become a part of our daily lives.
Even networks that might not have touched this stuff five years ago are embracing new reaches of the reality genre with open arms. The SyFy Channel recently picked up five additional executives to oversee a new programming expansion with a "record number of unscripted series in 2012," according to their senior vice president.
TLC, which in the 1990s was still called "The Learning Channel," began delving into the reality game in the early 2000s with uplifting shows like "A Wedding Story" and "Trading Spaces." The participants in those shows actually tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Now, one of TLC's biggest ratings draws is "Toddlers and Tiaras," a reality show in its fourth season that follows the cutthroat world of the child pageant circuit.
In one scene from "Toddlers" -- clips of which are currently circulating around the internet at a monstrous pace -- we meet Alana, a six-year-old pageant contestant, who is fed a mysterious "go-go-juice" by her self-proclaimed Coupon Queen mother, in order to "dope her up" and keep her energized for competition. While other child pageant contestants suck Pixy Stix out of their paper cases, Alana gobbles sips of the mysterious go-go-juice out of a bottle, twirls around face down on the ground and slurs her words and circles her head like a drunk on the way home from a bar.
In competition, she struts the stage in cakes of makeup and a wig and lifts up her shirt "to show her belly to the judges," as her mom gleefully instructs. When the tactic fails -- she didn't show her belly enough, according to her mother -- Alana gets a little sad, but lifts herself up by squeezing her belly into strange shapes while unseen spectators offscreen cackle with pleasure.
At another point in the episode, Alana's mother is praising her daughter's personality, but the camera doesn't stop rolling after her final sentence. Rather, it lingers for just a moment so we can watch as she releases a little belch, all while uplifting acoustic guitar plays in the background.
In the end, the scene manages to be utterly disturbing, then sort of funny, then utterly disturbing again, and ultimately sad. But regardless: we're watching it and passing it around and around. And though countless pieces have been and will continue to be written calling the show "child pornography" and "child abuse," it doesn't really matter anymore. The show will go on. The audience remains.
When Eden Wood, another child beauty queen from the show, went on "The Talk" to promote her original song, "Cutie Patootie," hosts Sharon Osbourne, Leah Remini and others looked on with terror as the studio audience clapped along to the beat like zombies held at gunpoint. And yet: there it was, still happening, still being promoted. Because there's no use arguing with it or denying it's there -- whether we approve or not, we're just as complicit in its existence.
Lowe's may have pulled their advertisements from the far more down-to-earth and empathetic program "All-American Muslim," but advertisers don't seem to balk from hawking their products on "Toddlers and Tiaras."
Neither TLC nor "Toddlers and Tiaras" producers returned requests for comment.
As more networks embrace reality programming, regardless of genre or branding -- it seems at this point like any reality show could be shown on any number of networks, no matter the name or subject matter -- what can we expect in 2012? Does anything remain off-limits?
A few years ago, a clip of a Japanese game show circulated featuring men in multi-colored robes, standing in a line. The host instructs them to repeat a phrase quickly, without slipping up. If they made an error, they were slapped in the crotch by a sort of pogo-stick device directly below them. When the stick inevitably hits them in their nether regions, the audience laughs as the men writhe in pain and the host blows a whistle.
While the idea of such a spectacle might have still seemed foreign and absurd in 2007, we're not above that kind of entertainment anymore. We've joined the party. On ABC's "101 Ways To Leave a Game Show" last spring, contestants were presented with mundane trivia questions. If they got an answer wrong, they were strapped to biplanes or helicopters that took off into the sky or hurled behind high-speed motorboats, dragged through the ocean like carcasses. The human beings were not generally shown returning safely to land, so it almost felt like they went off to die.
But it's still fun to watch! And thus, fair game. Over the next year, America will likely remain appalled at Snooki and Kim Kardashian and Eden Wood and Ted Haggard, and still we will watch and watch and pass and post as the low end of our cultural spectrum trounces any remaining semblance of dignity.
With the film adaptation of "The Hunger Games" arriving in theaters in 2012, one wonders: is an arena full of children fighting each other to the death so far off? It has to be. Because that's just too crazy. Right?