Reality television is controversial by nature, but it is not every week that one of these voyeuristic entertainments is slated as possibly “the worst TV show ever”. According to Lorelei Vashti, television writer for the Age newspaper in Australia, MTV’s latest reality ripper, Jersey Shore, wins that award hands down.

“It is so unspeakably bad it makes everything that isn’t Jersey Shore look wonderful, like green pastures with gangly newborn lambs and gurgling brooks and sunshine,” she wrote. Sounds extreme, but when the show boils down to a raunchy get drunk and have sex fest, with a cast of Italian-American Guidos and Guidettes — apparently the show’s selling point — it is easy to feel Vashti’s pain.

It’s enough to make real people yearn for the sociological solemnity of Seven Up, the British series which has followed the lives of 14 people since 1984 when they were seven, and which was the forerunner of reality programmes in the UK.

Nearly half a century later these shows are still proliferating and morphing into sub-genres, and it is safe to say that they now dominate TV screens internationally. There are the documentary-type shows, apparently meant to entertainingly inform us about anything and everything; the competition and game shows; the self-improvement and makeover shows — for those who needed their self-esteem buried seven feet under; numerous house and garden renovation programmes; the ever enlightening social experiments; dating shows that rate as “educational” because no one knows how any more; the talk shows where words speak louder than actions; hidden camera offerings to satisfy the stalker within; supernatural and paranormal visual exhibitions to scare us senseless; and — we just couldn’t live without them, could we? — the hoaxes where we can laugh at someone else’s expense. Yes, they’ve got it all covered.

Short of retiring to a cave in the desert, it is impossible to avoid all knowledge of RPs. Chances are you will have seen (or heard, for those who couldn’t stand to watch) something of Big Brother, Who wants to be a Millionaire, Ten Years Younger in Ten Days, Dancing with The Stars, Idol, Farmer Wants a Wife or Motorway Patrol. During the last ten years in particular it has become a case of, another year, another generation of reality programming rears it head — some uglier than others.

And then there was Jersey Shore.
Apparently, reality rubbish is educational for some. One viewer coming to its defence maintained that “Jersey Shore is awesome. The show gives guys great tips on how to pick up and meet women and how they like to be treated.” To be sure, if you are after a crash course on how to prepare for a sleaze session.

Other viewers were not so easily impressed. One found “Mike” describing his abs (“the situation”) “simultaneously hilarious and sickening”. Oh, and in case anyone was wondering about the “great tips” on dating, apparently they are as barely there as the Guidos’ and Guidettes’ apparel. The tag of the “the worst show ever” was perhaps too kind.

But, surely, healthy food celebrity Jamie Oliver has something wholesome to serve up? The 7.5 million American viewers who watched Jamie’s Food Revolution recently thought so. No less an oracle than the New York Times found it “entertaining” and “engrossing” television, and the series rated as the most watched programme in the US.

Indeed, “entertaining” and “engrossing” is fair praise for a programme as far as television goes, but at times what was revealed about western attitudes was, simply, gross. And distressing, since in this case what was shocking came out of the mouths of babes; primary school children chosen to be inducted into the mysteries of Good Food showed themselves the true heirs of indiscriminate consumerism.

Thank goodness the kids squirmed with disgust when, in an early episode, Jamie blended up a chicken carcass and added a generous helping of chicken skin. His experiment in aversion training seemed to be working. Alas, adding stabiliser and flavouring, rolling out the mixture and cutting it into small patties, dusting them with bread crumbs and dunking them in grease made all the difference. Jamie was set to preach his lesson on the goodness of whole foods and the evil of processed pulp, but when it came to the crunch it was game, set and munch for the chicken carcass nuggets.

Somewhere between the bread crumbs and the oil the youngsters forgot about the bones and connective tissue. Did their willingness to eat scraps that wouldn’t ordinarily even be fed to animals reveal something more? Jamie thinks so. “The scary thing is that we have brainwashed our kids so brilliantly so even though they know something is disgusting and gross they’ll still eat it if it’s in that friendly little shape,” he commented after witnessing the kids unanimous choice to eat carcass filled nuggets instead of nutritious cuts of real chicken.

Well, that was a dose of reality worth taking, was it not? Perhaps we should not write off the whole genre but sift it for what is truly educational. Let’s see if that applies to my third and last example.

Dateline’s Chris Hansen and his latest social experiment, What Were You Thinking? gives interesting insights into generation Y.

In a recently aired episode, Chris Hansen’s team set up fake auditions with wannabe contestants for what the contestants thought was to be an all-new reality show called “What a Pain”. The audition task was to quiz a person and administer electric shocks of increasing intensity to the person for each question answered incorrectly. Yes, it was a set up, but to the best knowledge of the six participants, each time the person answered incorrectly they were really delivering an electric shock to a real person and they could hear the screams and pleading to stop (simulated by an actor).

What is truly shocking is that five of the six participants freely administered electric shocks and half of all contestants reached the maximum voltage without stopping, even when the actor playing the part of the person answering stopped responding. In real life these voltages would have resulted in death. Only one of the six would not participate when told the audition tasks; some felt anxious and were clearly distressed by the screams of pain they heard, while others ignored all sensitivity, mercilessly reaching maximum voltage without so much as a squint.

Asked what they were thinking, the participants gave reasons ranging from being scared of what would happen to them if they didn’t continue with the audition (electric shocks?), to being sure that those who set up the audition had everything completely under control. So that boils down to selfishness and insensitivity prompted by complete desertion of personal responsibility. Generation Y, please tell me that you are still human!

Thank goodness for the solitary participant who, although initially willing to audition for such a programme, had some sort of ethical standards.

The question I face is this: Despite its effect on me, does Hansen’s show really take the moral temperature of my generation? Does Jamie’s show tell us what kids really prefer to eat? Or do the cameras and studio lights, the scripts and cues, along with the lure of instant fame, create an unreal world whose only value is to entertain those who have lost interest precisely in reality?

As far as this bunch of programmes goes, Jersey Shore is the most transparent because it is such obvious rubbish; you know exactly what you are getting — or not getting. With the others, the appearance of reality is seductive. There is some truth in it, but wouldn’t we all be better off for killing the programme and getting a real life?

Helena is Sydney Journalist currently working in television.

Helena Adeloju lives in Australia. She is a Melbourne-based journalist who has also worked in newspaper and television newsrooms in Sydney and Hobart. She has had the opportunity to travel widely across...