Mad-scientist/inventor/"Wife Swap" alumnus Richard Heene thought it was a great idea to send a giant flying-saucerish home-built helium balloon into the air and then tell authorities that his 6-year-old-boy Falcon was inside as it careened for hours and 60 miles across the bright blue Colorado skies to the horror of the entire nation. The following day, under the intense stress of TV lights and his dad's lies, poor little Falcon was reduced to vomiting during a "Today Show" interview. The family also appeared on CNN's "Larry King Show." Pressed for details by guest-host Wolf Blitzer, Heene asked his boy why he didn't come out of the attic he was hiding in when he heard them calling for him. "You guys said we did this for the show," he said. He was referring to the reality tv program his parents were aggressively pitching to producers. Blitzer had his now-famous "Aha!" moment, and the rest as they say is history. Heene and his partner in crime, wife Mayumi, now face misdemeanor and Federal charges that include conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and lying to the federal government. Prison time and hefty fines could follow.
The "Balloon Boy" saga proves one thing: that the insatiable hunger for reality TV fame makes people do really stupid things. And once they actually have a show, it can destroy friendships, families, marriages and leave a pile of emotional carnage in its wake. The reality show casualties-list is a long one, and includes Jon and Kate Gosselin, Danny and Gretchen Bonaduce, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, Hulk and Linda Hogan, Carmen Electra amd Dave Navarro, and Britney Spears and Kevin Federline. In fact, having cameras follow you around 24/7 is almost a certain kiss of death in the romance of reality. Yet, people like the Heenes scratch and claw still to get their name in lights. In the case of the Heenes, the party's now over before it even started. And it's their kids who will ultimately suffer the most.
Reality television is a stain on our society and an insult to culture. It's dumbed-down television at its worst, lowest common-denominator. It makes people like Richard Heene act like an anger-management-starved idiot on "Wife Swap." It makes former House Majority Leader Tom Delay dance like a Viagra-fueled, lip-syncing freak on "Dancing with the Stars." It makes former "Taxi" star Jeff Conway expose his tragic, humiliating substance-abuse on "Celebrity Rehab." It makes fat people cry on "The Biggest Loser." It makes people eat bat-shit and lie with rats on "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Outta Here!" It makes guys act like disrespectful pigs on "The Bachelor/Bachelorette" It makes rich housewives in NJ, NY, Atlanta and Orange County, CA act like a bunch of spoiled, vacuous, obnoxious, catty, neurotic beeyaches. It makes families neglect their children and put them through a life of media hell, all for some quick cash in their pockets and the feel of red-carpet under their feet. It brings out the absolute worst behavior in people, while bringing them to embarrassing levels of prime-time foolishness. And, not to get into a whole other case against it, but it's also put an awful lot of very talented, hard-working television writers out of work. Enough, I say.
Some cultural phenomenons have their watershed moments. The Manson Family murders served to kill the Summer of Love. The violence at the Rolling Stones' Altamont concert dampened the Woodstock generation and effectively put an end to the 60's and peace-and-love. Maybe the Heene's colossal bout with selfishness, irresponsibility and sheer attention-seeking desperation will be the nail in the reality television coffin. Let's hope so