NBC's new show The Marriage Ref got a lot of promo time during the Olympics, which has more to do with the continuing power of Jerry Seinfeld than anything resembling real quality (although it deserves mentioning that host Tom Papa is both genial and funny, with a sort of a modern Jack Benny vibe). Here's the problem: the show relies on the growing notion that American entertainment is all about making fun of your fellow Americans.
It's nothing new, though the rise of reality TV has certainly made it more pronounced. And now it's becoming depressingly rampant--if comedic stalwarts like Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Larry David (all appearing in early episodes) are supporting this, then what hope does scripted TV -- you know, when we were laughing at fictional characters instead of having the lens turned around on us? -- truly have?
There was an old episode of WKRP in Cincinnati that poked fun at what Real People was already doing back in the late '70s/early '80s. And since then, we've come a long and sad way, baby.
10. Queen for a Day
The show that may well have started it all -- and was spectacularly crass, especially for its era (1945-1964). The setup was this: To have American housewives spill the details of their hard-luck lives, with the most pathetic stories winning them the titular royal dubbing, some flatware, maybe a trip or a new appliance ... and then they'd return to those same awful lives that they'd just revealed on national radio and TV. It was no more than schadenfreude for the post-war/atomic age masses -- and it held a shameless audience on radio and TV for nearly twenty years.
9. Tool Academy
Someone needs to escort VH1 out of the building. It's out of control. Especially with this show, in which idiot dudes (the "tools" of the title) are invited to prove to their girlfriends (what's the feminine form of "tool"?) that they can become less of a waste of breath. And they fail. Utterly. vidence: one guy preferred to be referred to as "Matsuflex." Wow. That's some bold toolage. But it's more of the same from this rich vein of stupidity: Real Housewives, Sweet Sixteen, Flava of Love ... it's just heartbreaking. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, people.
8. Fear Factor
Joe Rogan, man, you're a funny guy. Why you wanted to be a part of this ridiculous glass of elephant dung juice is pretty obvious -- the money. Which, of course, was the same reason why contestants chose to debase themselves on the show, and submit to your junior-high-style peer pressure tactics. Worse yet is watching it all for the sheer entertainment value. It's like Faces of Death, only we're watching the demise of human dignity.
7. Jon & Kate Plus Eight
The saddest part of this show is that the "plus eight" didn't have a say at all in whether or not they wanted to be on the show. Nobody gets to pick their families, sure, but at the same time, the bad apples on your particular family tree probably aren't making it worse by showing off on cable television, trying desperately not to be the useless, shrieking, selfish little crapweasels that they are.
6. America's Funniest Home Videos
Sure, sure. Nothing wrong with laughing at someone else's personal injury now and then. It's like Mel Brooks says: Tragedy is when I get a paper cut. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die. But really, this long-lived series (which started in 1989, with a merciful hiatus in 2000) is actually a pretty interesting indicator of what America finds funny and can't get enough of -- cats falling, babies tripping, kids maiming parents, specifically dads, and specifically in the nuts with baseball bats. It doesn't speak well of us, not does the fact that it's been on for twenty years. That, friends, is a lot of groin injury. 5. Cheaters
It's just a fact of life: sometimes relationships end badly. Sometimes people are unfaithful. Sometimes confrontation, anger, and sadness are inevitable. But to aid and abet the confrontation itself so that it can be filmed for the entertainment of the masses? It's enough to make you want to stab the person responsible -- which is exactly what happened to host Joey Greco in a 2003 episode. Unless, as Inside Edition claims, the whole thing was staged. In which case, you gotta think: well, the show is called Cheaters.
4. Temptation Island
So the concept of this show was to put couples in potentially compromising situations with attractive and seductive persons of the opposite sex, ostensibly to test the strength of their original relationships. As reprehensible as that sounds in terms of entertainment value, even more reprehensible was the outcome of one of the couples that the show's premise threatened: they had a child together back home. And this from FOX, whose news division is supposedly one of the staunchest defenders of family values? Ah, I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning.
3. The Jerry Springer Show
This is where cringeworthy television really hit its stride. Want to see a cross-dressing white supremacist who's in love with his stepsister and wonders if her baby is his gay uncle's love child? Well, here's your show. In related news: Get some therapy.
2. The Newlywed Game
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Come on, is there no one else who watched this and wanted to tell Bob Eubanks where he could stick his smug little smirk? (That would be up your ass, Bob.)
1. The Tonight Show (Jaywalking)
Not the most egregious of examples on this list, but definitely the most mainstream--which makes it all the worse. When a television staple like The Tonight Show starts indulging in the ridicule of stupid people -- whether or not they're only pretending to be stupid, which probably isn't the case nearly as much as we'd like it to be -- as a form of entertainment, we've turned a bad corner. Where it will all end is a question even Carnac the Magnificent would have trouble answering.