05/31/2010 09:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Getting Surreal

"You can't make this stuff up" has become a clichéd refrain in our reality-TV-obsessed, out-to-shock world, but sometimes life is so outrageous that there's really no other response.

I had one of those moments when I picked up my morning paper on Saturday. The Stamford Advocate's cover story was about a Stamford city police officer who had been suspended and was facing possible criminal charges for supposedly showing a picture of his genitals to a woman he had pulled over. It's the kind of (unfunny) story line that might belong in an old Police Academy movie or an episode of the Comedy Central show "Reno 911!"--but as the lead article in the local newspaper of record, it made me do a double take.

It's deeply skeevy, but (as another cliché goes) wait, there's more. The woman had her 21-month-old baby in the backseat. And the officer was married. And a 14-year veteran of the police force. Who had been named Officer of the Year in 2006.

It was the kind of story I couldn't stop reading, and the more I read, the more surreal it got. After the officer stopped the woman for talking on her cell phone while driving, he allegedly made a pass at her, then, when she rebuffed him for being too old (as if she needed a reason), pulled out his phone to show her a graphic photo of "what 40-year-old experience will do for you," she says he told her.

Stamford has plenty of distinguished and dignified citizens, but it seems this officer was inspired by one of our least illustrious local institutions. The city is, after all, the hometown of "The Jerry Springer Show." When I read stories like this, I wonder if Springer is somehow in the municipal water. (Another Springer-esque case in point: The owner of the chimp that nearly killed the owner's friend recently died at her North Stamford home--from a ruptured artery that was said to relate to a broken heart. Her sister-in-law told the Advocate: "I think [the chimp] had a lot to do with it. She was very depressed about losing everything she and [her husband] worked so hard for.")

The dark side can seem even darker in "upstanding" communities--and by no means is it limited to Fairfield County, Conn.; it's just the example I'm using because it's where I live--because it so often stays in the shadows. My grandmother used to insist that people moved to California and discovered divorce. But now people everywhere work hard to preserve their sparkling surfaces, while (mostly) hiding the salaciousness underneath. We all need to ask ourselves what really goes on behind closed doors, even when the lawns are manicured and the SUVs in the driveways proclaim children at Middlebury or UVA or Berkeley.

A lot more goes on, and more frequently, than we think. The victim of the cop's harassment was especially shocked by his confidence. She said, "What bothered me the most about it was that it did not progress, it just started off bold. It started off with a bang. For you to be comfortable doing that, you must be doing it often."

Perhaps the most surreal part of the story is that he thought he could continue getting away with it. If reality TV has taught us anything, it's that there's always an audience--and the prevalence of social media means it's often a big one, unconstrained by geography. The Advocate's cover article quickly became the most e-mailed on its website, drew comments and was shared on dozens of Facebook pages. A local travesty soon became a national example of stupidity and disgust.

It feels as if the news and reality TV are blending. But while the exploits of Snooki, real housewives and Kim Kardashian make us laugh, the bizarre misbehavior of regular community members is anything but funny.