Wide Awake: A Dose of Reality
The slow death of television

When I was a kid, Friday nights were special. The Brady Bunch was on TV. After that, I watched The Partridge Family. I had a poster of David Cassidy, and when he sang “I Think I Love You,” I knew he meant me, and I loved him right back.

None of my friends’ families were like the Partridge family. They owned a bus. And they wore long-sleeved velvet pantsuits when they sang together – in their family band. One sister played the keyboard, the other played the tambourine. I was someone’s sister, but I didn’t play a musical instrument. I also didn’t have a brother who looked like David Cassidy.

I would have loved to be in that family. Unless, of course, there was an opening in the Brady family.

Growing up in a row home in Philly, I was especially mesmerized by the Brady’s house. They had grass in their backyard. And they had a room that looked like a living room but it wasn’t, because they had a living room right at the bottom of those totally cool suspended steps. (I figured only an architect’s house could have them.) I wasn’t sure what that room was right next to the kitchen, but I wished I had one.

I also wished, when I was older and starting a family, that I had Alice, the Brady’s house keeper/confidant/advisor/substitute parent/driver/cook. Even when I was 9, I knew every family would benefit by having an Alice. As long as she didn’t run off and marry the butcher – which you could trust she never would – the needs of the entire family would be met…always.

Believe it or not, programs like these showed me this ideal of a happy family, a nice home and a fun life. It got silly as years went on, but its main themes were always simplicity and kindness. It’s hard to knock that.

Today, my kids don’t have the same options on TV – not even close.

For years, I’ve been a pretty faithful fan of reality TV. I especially like competition shows, like American Idol or The Amazing Race.  I’ve even watched America’s Next Top Model with my girls and had what you might call a few “teachable moments.” (They wouldn’t call them that, of course.) When a girl we think might win does something to ruin her chances, like becomes a diva during a photo shoot, I’m right there pointing out how you win and how you don’t.

It seems over the past few years, reality TV has become a chance to watch a small minority of crazy people live their lives. Rich housewives. Kids at the shore. Teen moms. Baby beauty queens. Addicts. People who never take out the trash.

I’m starting to feel really old because every chance I get, I turn off the television. Too many shows are taking us to a place I’d rather not go, and I especially don’t want my daughters going there. Even when I’m by myself and free to indulge in a guilty pleasure, I still don’t watch TV.

Next thing you know, I’ll be saying Elvis really did move his hips too much.

I wonder where programming is headed, and just how much viewers will accept in their homes. Joe and I try to manage what content comes into our living room, but it isn’t easy. I’m a believer that if you forbid something, it becomes very appealing, so we’ve never gone so far as to forbid a particular TV show. I do try persuasion. When that doesn’t work, I sit with them and come up with all kinds of teachable moments. For some people, that’s all you need to ruin a show.

Reality programming has changed television, probably forever. What’s left to be seen is how it is changing its viewers – those young people who may be starting to think that binge-drinking is harmless, and that Mike “The Situation” is cool.

If they only knew Keith Partridge.

March 2011
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