Sunday is my TV night. I watch 60 Minutes and Extreme Makeover Home Edition, and have now added Undercover Boss to my viewing roster. I've been watching 60 Minutes since I was a kid and it's an ingrained part of Sunday for me, a lot like reading the paper. I've been thinking a lot about the messages these shows are sending.
I've had a complicated reaction to Extreme Makeover since it started. I think it's wonderful that some people living in very poor conditions can get a fresh start with a new home (and okay, I cry just about every week), but I hate the glee with which they destroy the old house. I feel like the TV people trample over and discard everything the family put into their old home. I don't like the way they buy all new furniture and create homes with very little personality (I am not a fan of the theme room for kids) and TVs in every room (conveniently tuned to ABC). And I don't like that the families are so removed from the building process, although it's great that they get a vacation. And of course, they create state of the art systems for people with disabilities that make their lives so much better. Like I said, mixed reaction.
Last night, there was a pre-demolition clip where one of the TV people was pushing two boys around in a toy car and he ran over another boy's art easel. TV guy said, "It's okay, buddy, I'll get you a new one." The poor kid went off and sulked, because something he cared about was destroyed by the TV guy, and the idea of "I'll make your sorrow go away by buying you something new while you're distracted somewhere else" was what came through. Why not take the time to fix what was broken? The whole show makes me uneasy (but I watch it, week after week).
The new show Undercover Boss is my new favorite. A CEO of a company goes "undercover" (with a camera crew) to entry-level jobs with his (not yet his or her, all his so far) company. They explain the camera crew as making a documentary about trying new jobs. In the few shows I've seen, the CEO gets a big wake-up as to how hard the little people are working, and says he'll realign the company operations to take frontline people's concerns more into account. Last night, it was the CEO of 7-11. The stores were throwing out day old baked goods and he wanted to make sure that food was going to food pantries rather than just being trashed. Nice counterpoint to the uber-disposal culture of Extreme Makeover, but I'd be interested to see how things are going six, twelve, and eighteen months after the show.
It's interesting that these two shows are on the air right now; showing the daily lives of the working poor, lower middle-class type families. Back in the 80s, we had Dallas and Dynasty, with the message that we, the viewing public, could aspire to a high-roller life of consumption and excess, champagne and shoulder pads. Now we have these shows warning us that we're just one childhood illness or layoff away from living in a roach infested moldy hovel, and if we're lucky enough, we could be holding on to a third-shift job at a convenience store with no hope of advancement. With Dallas and Dynasty, the message was that if you worked hard (or married well), you could enjoy your riches. Now the message seems to be that if you're lucky enough to have a job, you're unlikely to get ahead unless someone from the world of Hollywood notices you and decides to bestow their largesse on you.
Kind of depressing. But mesmerizing none the less, and like a moth to the flame, I'm going to keep watching.