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What we're asking is, are you for real'

So much schadenfreude and so little time. Watching other people's misery, dysfunction and perversity is titillating for many but is there a line' The American taste dams finally burst with Who's Your Daddy' after a steadily shocking torrent of reality shows. It was the ultimate marrying of human emotion with financial reward, raising the hackles of a society inured by over-exposure and over-consumption.

The show is premised on the ability of a person who was adopted as a child to pick her real father from a group of eight men for a $-100,000 prize. If the person fails to guess correctly, the imposter gets the booty. During the only episode to be broadcast so far, all eight men, teary-eyed and pleading, tried to convince a woman called TJ that they were her real father. Many heart-wrenching scenes later, she guessed correctly and walked away with the money.

But TJ left a storm in her path. From the taste police to adoption advocates, from members of the moral majority to Christian fundamentalists, the show managed to shock and shake many upright pillars of society. Until now the emotion-killing reality shows have all been about romance, in some fashion. They involve an exchange of cash, dehumanisation of the contestants, 15 minutes of fame and making the emotional slashing, cutting and splaying of people on camera into a sport. But now Fox seems to be fishing for entertainment in even deeper waters. Or, as the narrator in Who's Your Daddy' declared so breathlessly at the start of the episode: 'There's no greater bond than that between a parent and child.' And then went on to ask ' 'But what happens if the bond is broken' One can only imagine and until now most of us were satisfied not knowing the answer. But then came the idea to create an on-camera game with a grown-up adoptee, pretend fathers and a real father ' all tied into an emotional knot with money.

Fox executives appear to be backing off and have announced they will shelve five episodes already filmed since both the ratings and the reaction were angry. Who's Your Daddy' comes after such offerings as My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance in which an entire family of innocents was forced to twist in the wind while pretending not to be dismayed by their daughter's hideously rude, if fictional, husband-to-be. Other Fox horses in the ratings race are Trading Spouses: Who's Your New Mommy and Nanny 911. The titles are pitilessly real. In Trading Spouses, households are shaken up when moms leave their kids to take over another family for a full dose of 'comedy and drama' to find out if the grass is really greener on the other side. A show promo asks: 'Who got the better trade this week' Watch and find out.

On a recent episode of Trading Spouses, a mother found out to her chagrin how unloved she was by her own kids who showed no cheer when she returned home after spending a week with another family. Her oldest son, Brian, a pierced and tattooed young man, found the 'new' mom easy to talk to and willing to listen. The fill-in mom was supportive of his artistic expressions. The real mom was devastated, continued yelling at her four children, and continued belittling their interests. It was riveting drama.

Nanny 911 was created by Fox after it lost the bidding war for the surprisingly successful British show Supernanny to ABC. Both have essentially the same narrative ' chaotic families, screaming brats, frustrated parents ' until the nanny arrives and gives them utterly obvious advice. The inferno in the making is suddenly transformed into a pale garden of Eden in an hour which is a distillation of a week's worth of filming. The hankering for a Mary Poppins is obvious among the harried, double-income, overworked, stressed-out, performance-obsessed parents. But this may be Mary Poppins crossed with the supercharged world of the Anime generation.

The madhouses into which the nannies walk are out of control, seeped in ongoing wars and so 'real' that you watch either because you are better than them or because you are them. 'Oh! Those horrible parents!' or 'Yes, I've been there and done that' are the two responses. So, once a week, the overwhelmed moms, indifferent dads and tyrannical tots get to be prime-time heroes. Viewers are finding dysfunctional real-life families entertaining and sometimes even educational. What better relaxation than watching someone else's children throw tantrums after a day with one's own kids'

But reality shows are proving to be too much reality for some. Gale Sayers and Julie S. Tye of an adoption agency, The Cradle, wrote in The Chicago Tribune that Who's Your Daddy' had broken all rules of propriety. 'The game show format relies on deception, commercialism and a stunning absence of parity between the participants,' they wrote. Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York has said that 'the very idea of taking such a deeply personal, complex situation and turning it into a money-grubbing game show is perverse, destructive, insensitive and offensive.'

But many viewers are hooked.

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