How Reality TV Reveals Our Self-Righteousness

To me, the problem with our television viewing, like our movie viewing, has less to do with content than it does with our hearts. In our tribe of evangelicals, the conversations tend to focus on lust and sexuality. But there’s far more than sex happening in our hearts when we watch TV and movies.

Let’s take a fairly friendly show like The Amazing Race. I’m not a huge fan but watched a few episodes several seasons back, and I catch glimpses of it now and then. I remember when it dawned on me that the casting directors on the show are the true geniuses. Like any good story, they give you sympathetic characters, underdogs, and villains. It’s with the villains that we need to examine our hearts. There’s almost always a verbally abusive alpha-male, dominating his poor wife or girlfriend throughout the show. It brings out the bile in us, and we hate him. In fact, this sort of slimy weasel character shows up on a lot of reality television.

Now why would casting directors consistently put people on TV for us to hate? You’d think our tendency would be to change the channel when they were on TV. On the contrary, we love the villains. We love to hate them. Having a villain, an enemy, a monster to watch puts us as the viewer on the judgment seat. We’re empowered to stare down our noses at these villains, and the contempt feels great.

The villain role was so successful in reality TV that it gave birth to this whole second-generation of shows like Rock of Love, I Love New York, and Jersey Shore—houses full of contemptible people doing dehumanizing things for a moment of fame. The phrase, “I’m not here to make friends” has become a mainstay of all reality TV shows, indicating the moment when the villain is revealed, the contempt pours out, and things get ugly.

Why do we watch them? Why do we have “big appetites” for contempt? Because it fans the flames of our self-righteousness. The fall has left our souls without gravity, adrift, looking for any indication they can find of their security. Reality TV’s villains present us with the minimal assurance that, no matter how bad things may be, at least we aren’t eating animal entrails for a chance to date a washed-up rock star.

Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky

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