Sunday, August 4, 2013

Musings on America's Got Talent

America's Got Talent ends up being one of the few TV shows I watch, mostly because watching doesn't require premium cable and Jane and Julia really like it.  The show is often interesting and occasionally even uplifting.  Yet as we watched this week's semi-finals, live from Radio City Music Hall, I was troubled by two thoughts which made me think about viewing habits generally.

The first question came during the judges comments to one of the acts.  A group of pre-teen boys performed
Howard Stern with an AGT act
a dance that, I think, was meant to look sexy, macho, and perhaps even gansta-esque.  Watching them was bizarre and troubling.  More troubling though were the judges comments, which mostly ran along the "you are all so cute" lines.  The only judge who said the act was inappropriate and unpleasant to watch was Howard Stern.  Yes, Howard Stern!  Not for the first time in my AGT viewing did I find myself grateful for Howard's comments, both aesthetically and for how various acts could help themselves even if they didn't win the million dollars.  But I didn't expect to see him as the advocate for the integrity of our young people. I don't really believe that Howard is today's voice for morality and Christian ethics, but at least in this context he seems to be the voice of reason and responsibility.  Hearing the other judges' comments, I can't help but wonder if we have become so accustomed to seeing children on screen (and in real life) performing so inappropriately that it doesn't even register to most of us any longer.  The creation of such acts is troubling enough.  More tragic is when we no long realize why it is troubling.  Gratefully that particular act did not make it to the next round.

In the same episode, a sword-swallower was on, who also did not make it to the next round.  I don't know if I had ever seen a real sword-swallower before, but this gentleman from Moldova literally opened up his mouth, stuck a sword down his throat and did acrobatics.  This act is quite dangerous.  Howard noted that he had injured himself internally during rehearsals that week and couldn't eat for two days.  Some of the judges during the act seemed quite afraid that he would seriously hurt himself during the live performance.  As I was watching, I thought about how much responsibility I would have if he had hurt or even killed himself.  I think most of us when we watch a show assume that we can trust the producers' judgement to ensure we won't see someone die on live TV.  But that judgment may not be so good (see paragraph above). 

An Ancient Roman Reality Show
It seems to me that we have some responsibility for the people we watch injure themselves for our amusements, whether we pay at a turnstile, buy the t-shirt, or just add to the ratings numbers.  I don't think we can just watch a professional football game without being aware of the toll concussions and other injuries have upon the players for the rest of their lives. (See, for instance, this report.)  I'm not sure that we can watch "reality television" and blithely ignore the emotional consequences on immature individuals who have their lives manipulated in front of millions for a chance to win a prize or launch an acting career.  While they may be free to choose to put themselves in those situations, if I help them along, I have some responsibility in where they end up.  If my money encourages them to self-destructive behaviors, I'm paying a portion of the ethical bill for the results.  If I watch a sword-swallower self-inflict serious injuries, not in a freak accident but in a somewhat probable outcome, I can't just shrug it off as a disturbing program.  I should be disturbed, disturbed enough to make better entertainment choices.

I am heartened that the voters and judges on America's Got Talent have not voted forward these or some of the other troubling acts.  And, after all, we can count on Howard Stern upholding standards of decency and appropriateness.

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