Over dinner the other night, while talking about this column, I was offered one simple piece of advice: let people in other parts of the world know that not all Americans are rich, self-absorbed jackasses like the celebrities who get most of the media attention.
However, if I'm to be brutally honest, then I must confess, American society really is materialistic. After all, part of our obsession with celebrities stems from the fact that they are rich and own lots of cool toys (cars, airplanes, mansions) that we would all like to play with. The only question is--how do we score those toys?
Many people believe that someday, somehow, even if it's just by winning the lottery (odds of being hit by lightning are far greater) they will get the chance to be rich and famous.
This thought feeds us, drives us, keeps us going through the night while we work third shift bussing tables for drunken teenagers at Denny's. But were we always this way?
It used to be that if you wanted to be famous and rich (fame comes first since it's the new 21st century drug), you would work hard developing some kind of talent: preferably something musical, comedic, or artistic. However, if you merely wanted to be rich, you would work hard to become a doctor, lawyer, real estate speculator or work on Wall Street.
Those approaches have vanished.
Today, everyone wants his or her fifteen minutes of fame NOW! They can't wait to learn a trade or skill, they can't take the time to hone their craft, it's now, now, NOW!
There are two unfortunate causes for this. The first is talentless whores born into immense wealth such as Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and Kim Kardashian. Wow, I'm embarrassed I even know who these people are.
The other reason for this new affliction is reality television. Anyone can be on a reality show. John and Suzie Q. Public can make fools of themselves just as much as the most outrageous celebrities: all they need is a lack of dignity.
Most reality shows are simply game shows with a twist. This means that regular game shows have had to amp up their "reality" edge. Contestants on Deal or No Deal and the other prime time game shows must now be "personalities," in other words, kooky, crazed, overly emotional, easily excitable, occasionally unstable gamblers who are willing to risk everything for a chance to win increasingly large amounts of prize money. And unlike game shows of the past where you would keep some of your earnings, modern game shows are an all or nothing proposition. Casting calm, even-tempered people makes for boring television since no one wants to see someone who will be content with $50,000, when there's still a million dollars at stake.
Although not the first, Survivor launched the reality craze. The very first season of the show revealed people at their best and worst. Of course, the liars and backstabbers thrived and won.
Fear Factor offered average Americans a chance to perform dangerous stunts and also eat some of the most nauseating objects found on the planet, everything from animal testicles to live, squishy bugs.
The Bachelor and The Bachelorette forced a single person to attempt to find their perfect mate amongst a group of conniving, ego-driven contestants. The real reality: most of them were actors or models trying to further their career with TV airtime.
The short-lived Temptation Island may be one of the foulest ideas to emerge from any network. The concept here was to take couples in trouble and offer them incredibly beautiful and handsome alternatives with whom they could cheat.
Finally, there is the juggernaut that is American Idol. It's been said before that American Idol is nothing more than a karaoke contest, and I quite agree, with one major difference. When a karaoke contest is over, the contestants return home to their dreary lives. When American Idol is over, the world has to suffer through the glut of soulless, manufactured music that continues to spew not only from the winners, but from the runners-up as well.
All of these shows promote the idea that television can change your life. In a few rare cases, it does. But most of the contestants, when their 15 minutes of fame is up, are forced to return to their normal lives. Reality shows have become so popular, there's no room to parley them into long-term careers.
Unfortunately, we can't be happy living in syndication. No one is ever happy with their current circumstances. The real tragedy of Americans is that because we are so materialistic, we always want more. Consequently, we are all in some way trying to be in the sequel to our own lives.
If we stepped back long enough we would realize that it's not a question of ratings. After all, we are taught over and over again that it's not quantity that matters -- it's quality.
Once upon a time, the sitcom was king. A few decades before that, the Western and the variety show dominated the airwaves. In time, reality shows will most likely fade in popularity, though I doubt they'll ever disappear. The genie's been let out of the bottle and there's no turning back. Until then, I guess we just have to live with "reality."