05 October 2023

You Get What You Pay For

by Eve Fisher

A couple of weeks ago was, God help us, the anniversary of the 45th anniversary of the hit "reality" TV show, Survivor.  I've watched one episode of it, and it quickly became clear that it was about watching people in the minimum of clothing (sometimes not even that) compete for the right to stay on the island all the time making alliances and deals which they promptly broke without shame or qualms, because winning was all that counted.  I never watched another.  

But it was and still is a hit, and since then there have been so many "reality" TV shows like The Apprentice, starring a currently indicted former President as not himself, the Kardashians (never watched a single episode of that one) watching the rich and becoming famous marry the very rich and famous and have an never-ending series of 1% Problems, Duck Dynasty, watching the rich and becoming famous pretend to be "just us folks" and literally selling their religious beliefs along with more duck calls to millions while making even more millions from the show and spin-off books, Big Brother, with its titillating promise of watching pneumatic people have pneumatic sex or at least hearing it, Jersey Shore, ditto, etc., etc., etc.  

Granted, there are also shows like American Idol, which at least give the masses hope that they can become the next superstar if they please the masses and the judges, and one per season does.  Slim odds, but better than none.

NOTE:  I always put "reality" in quotes when it comes to TV shows because folks, they are heavily scripted, edited, and even rehearsed, just like professional wrestling, and if you want to have a fit about it, please call the Tooth Fairy and let her know.  

Now we are what we eat, and that doesn't just apply to our bodies.  What our minds feed on transforms our minds, too.  And our social culture.  All these shows are HITS.  And the result is that fictional TV is also wrapped up in nothing but competition, celebrity, looks, wealth, and the occasional loser from hell.

And what lessons do we learn from these shows? 

  • That life is all about competition, and whatever it takes to win, do it and don't have any regrets.
  • Wealth, power, celebrity, and looks are the only things that matter - what else would we want to see on TV but people who are seriously above us socially, economically, and physically?  After all, as John Steinbeck said, every American sees themselves as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires."  That could be us, next!  (Grow up, folks.)
  • The only exception to the above is when we have a show that concentrates on schadenfreude or "there but for the grace of God".  Biggest Loser, Cops, and Hoarders all leap to mind.  

House of Cards.  Succession.  Yellowstone.  White Lotus.  Hell, even soap operas now are all set in the world of multi-millionaires who just swap CEO / COO jobs and companies around like they're chips and dip.  

Meanwhile, the Young Adult market is heavily into how to rebel (successfully, eventually) against dystopian societies in which all the resources are with the 1% and they use us for the Hunger Games, until they're finally overthrown.  (See also The Maze Runner, Divergent, Station Eleven, etc.) This could / should get very interesting...  

Anyway, we've been swimming in the ocean of mass media for a long time now - radio dramas began in the 1920s, television in the 1940s, although it wasn't until the 1955 that half the population had a TV set (black and white of course).  And now we have streaming services in every room, on every television, computer, and smart phone and almost nobody just "listens to the radio" anymore.  

What interests me is the trends in stories over history.  After all, what we watch is crafted for us by others, and it either becomes popular or not. So what's popular when?  

Well, in Greek and Roman times, it could be summed up (to paraphrase Hamlet) "the play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience - or at least attention - of the crowd."  

Greek theater was all about comedies (often obscene by modern standards - big stuffed phalluses everywhere, including on the gods) making fun of men and gods and current events.  Aristophanes' The Clouds mocked Socrates, which proved, if nothing else, that Socrates had become a notable figure in ancient Athens.  It was also all about tragedies, ranging from Sophocles' relatively formal take on myth and legend (The Oedipus trilogy) to Euripides' more naturalistic approach, where gods appear seeming very human indeed (Dionysus in The Bacchae - one of my favorites) until they pull the god card out of their cloak and then anything can happen.  And there's always war.  

  • What the Greek plays teach is that the gods rule all; AND
  • "Lord of all gods is fate!"  (tag line from one of the Greek tragedies) A man (or woman) can't avoid his/her fate, no matter how grim it is, no matter how moral they are; all they can do is deal with it.
  • Suicide is a noble statement of moral righteousness and a way of expiation; 
  • and that family comes above all else, and you must avenge the dead.  

Oh, and Euripides hints, for the first time, in The Trojan Women and Medea, that women have an innate humanity, no matter that the men think of them as nothing but booty and slaves.

Rome came, stole most of the plays of ancient Greece, and added a few twists:  pantomime was hugely popular.  But the best fun of all was live violence and death.  From the gladiator contests to the killing of beasts in the arena, to tragedies where the deaths were live (The Death of Hercules, where a condemned criminal was burned alive at the end of the play), the Romans barely spent a day in which they didn't watch someone being killed live in front of them for entertainment.

Roman philosophers justified this for five major reasons:

  • It taught that the bad would be punished:  the criminals were already condemned to death for serious crimes (murder, robbery, arson, sacrilege, mutiny) so sending them into the arena actually gave them a chance to live they didn't deserve, and 
  • if they died horribly, their deaths were a deterrent to future crime and an example of what Romans should NOT do, and
  • if they died well, their courage would be inspiring.
  • It was good for the people to see blood and guts to accustom them to the needs of war. 
  • Last but not least, it kept the poor occupied.  The emperor Trajan said that gladiator contests were necessary for the “contentment of the masses.”

In other words, competition was training for war, which was one of the major means of growing rich in Rome.  Conquer something, and plunder it.  

Think about all those westerns in the 1950s and 60s.
Think about all the detective, lawyer, and police shows that have been on for decades, getting more and more graphic about crime and punishment every year.  
The huge popularity of TV, movies, and books about serial killers.  Serial killer chic.  
And now...  rich people doing wicked things in high places, for money, for power, for celebrity, and because they can.  
And Squid Game, let's not forget that.  

Could it be that any of this has anything to do with our current social / political / media climate?  After all, you get what you pay for.


  1. I share your fascination for how stories change over time. The outlook is gloomy at the moment but there have been some less bloodthirsty story lines. Think of Horatio Alger and the many growing up stories that used to be popular. In our favorite genre, certainly the role of women and the roles open to women have changed, probably partly with the recognition that women buy a lot of books. I suspect that there is a periodic polar shift from ruthless strife to more benign story lines and back again.

  2. I agree, Janice. I'm just kind of fed up these days with the "dramas" we're shown. I mean, would we really have the situation in the House of Representatives without Survivor, Apprentice, Succession, House of Cards, and, of course, Squid Game?

  3. Eve, your last line in the comment above says it all. And that scares the hell out of me. We are what we eat/watch, as you said earlier, and there is a nastiness in the programs put before us now, like never before. If I were still teaching college in the business school, I would take your post in with me for a full three hour class discussion.

  4. Thank you, Melodie! I'm scared by all this crap, too. I mean, that whole scene in the House was Survivor and Squid Game rolled up in one.

  5. I watched exactly one of some Survivor type show, maybe Naked and Afraid… not sure. The big, tough, macho guy collapsed in fear and the woman rescued them both, all with a drumbeat of will they make it or die? Can they reach the safe haven before they succumb to poison berries, venomous snakes, and fatal insect bites?

    How unbelievably stupid. Are we supposed to forget the camera crew filming this? That they have first aid, possibly a medic, and most certainly a helicopter standing by?

    And then Squid Games.

    No depth of disgust can accommodate the squalid mass of Squid Games.

    Visually it appeared fascinating, CMY primary colors and M.C. Escher sets. But the beginning slap scene began a descent into depravity. The premise wasn't new, but at one point it allowed players who'd come to their senses an out… and apparently no one took it. Likewise the show's writers ignored every opportunity to add a touch of humanity. The downslide only grew worse. The only decent characters I can recall were an elderly couple who refused to betray each other and chose to die together.

    I wondered if Kim Jong Un rebroadcast the series saying, "This is South Korea."

    After watching the series, I felt like I needed a hot shower with lye soap. I couldn't believe when Hollywood actors like DiCaprio sought to sign on to the second season. Whatever; I won't be watching.

  6. I don't watch any of this stuff - one episode, max - and then I try to scrub it out of my head. But I know it's infiltrated our whole culture with its lack of humanity.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>