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The lure of prime-time suffering

Taonga columnist John Bluck tries to see sense in TV shows that delight in misery, humiliation and despair.

John Bluck  |  12 Oct 2014

Current affairs TV used to be all about exposing injustice and scandal. These days you won’t get through 60 Minutes or Sunday without a sob ‘n tell story or three.

TV’s new favourites suffer from awful, disabling diseases, Ebola, medical misadventure, sexual assault. And for the sake of entertainment ratings, the rarer and crueller the misfortune, the better. 

We’re urged to put aside any voyeuristic qualms and make their suffering our own, even sending a donation to support the victim.

This new fashion for prime-time suffering is fleshed out by a bevy of bodyshock docos that feed on entertainment from other people’s misery. So we linger on impossible obesity, facelifts gone wrong and physical deformities that used to be confined to freak shows and circuses. 

As a result, some courageous people get to tell stories that could have been our own, but there is something tawdry about us revelling in such sadness, all from the passive comfort of our lounge chairs.

So what cultivates this crop of TV shows that delight in seeing the misery, humiliation and despair of others?  

The sufferers we watch so avidly wouldn’t thank us for saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” How come that grace sidestepped them? And there is a mix of disquieting motives for watching any of this genre – from invasion of privacy to old-fashioned prurience. 

Maybe something more is going on here.

The rise of this media fashion coincides with global events that seem out of control. Terrorism, global warming, the threat of rampant diseases and  infections.

With the report of each new crisis comes a sense of personal powerlessness. The more we see and know about the state of the world, the less we seem able to go about improving it, let alone even connecting with it.

These programmes offer a way of doing just that. Simply by watching we open ourselves, however cautiously, to taking on at least a smidgeon of some else’s suffering. And by talking about what we see, encouraging others to watch, even making a donation, that sense of powerlessness is eased and we think we’ve made a difference.

Recent media coverage of prominent New Zealanders, like Jack Body, Peter Williams and Douglas Myers, talking about their terminal diseases, is a case in point. We admire their courage and their honesty, and feel both the sadder and the richer for being able to share their story.

Perhaps one reason for this revived attraction to prime-time suffering is the breakdown of the old gathering places, both civic and religious, where stories were shared, support offered and strength found from a trustworthy community.

That’s what healthy churches can still do and why atheists want to imitate them. Not only in prime time for those whose suffering is dramatic and photogenic, but for all who come, in and out of season.

Bishop John Bluck lives in Pakiri, Wellsford.
bluck@vodafone.co.nz

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