SCOT BELLAVIA: Appall Appeal

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The Jerry Springer Show, Maury, Judge Judy, Dr. Phil. Are these anything more than freak shows? “Family-friendly” sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond, Modern Family, and Schitt’s Creek rely on dysfunction for humor. Audiences tune in like so many soap opera-addicted grannies for the appall appeal.

Whether they’re “reality” shows or scripted, it’s darkly comforting to know that our lives aren’t as messed up like the people on TV.

That’s been the conclusion I’ve held on to for years when considering why so many people watch the trash on television. But I think Netflix has incited within its audience another reason – living vicariously through the plot.

We quit Netflix last year, joining a virtual boycott following their addition of Cuties. Cuties’ plot demands the sexualization of the film’s preteen and teenage actresses. The boycott didn’t have the financial impact objectors intended, probably because, in our outrage, we didn’t consider how many of us were moochers rather than paying customers. And, as far as I can tell, Cuties is still available to watch.

In addition to not proving our point to Netflix, it’s ironic that my wife and I allowed Cuties to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. We should have quit cold turkey much sooner. We saw Netflix’s originals trending toward thematic darkness. Even the color palettes of the thumbnails are dull and overcast.

Of course, there are exceptions, like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, filmed and advertised with loud colors to reflect the title character’s positive outlook and the lifestyle of her gay friend, Titus. But the hazy shows, the ones we should have recognized as red flags, are murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, and star-studded crime sagas.

It seemed these shows serve no other purpose other than to provide shock value, to allow viewers to see their lives if only they made slightly different, more errant, choices.

Whether the audience was demanding the content or producers had their own agenda, the obvious chicken and egg question doesn’t solve my concern. The shows teach no valuable lesson. They only portray the potential (and penchant) for evil lying in each of us. I worry that when we watch these shows (it’s not just Netflix, by the way), we become desensitized to the gravity of evil.

I don’t want to come across as a high-strung Puritan. It’s a simple fact that what’s commonplace on our TV screen is a frequent flyer in our mind. I realize that the argument that ‘violent video games spawn serial killers’ is false. There is a chasm of perversion that needs to be crossed to go from mental desensitization to committing a real-life crime. Yet, I think we do ourselves great harm in deliberately appalling ourselves for entertainment’s sake.

It was difficult for us to admit we should quit Netflix. Though Cuties had already been added, we rationalized finishing the show we were binging at the time before ending things with Netflix for good. But we did, and the rule my wife and I made for ourselves is not to watch anything that glorifies evil.

We’ve found that shows based on true stories like When They See Us and Unbelievable are better than their fictional counterparts at putting evil in its proper place. If we start a show and there’s a scene that raise a question in either one of us, we’ll pause and talk about it. Usually, one person’s concern is enough evidence to find another show.

Everyone draws the line at some point. Ours might be too permissive to some, and I know it’s overly cautious for others. So, I encourage you to think about what you’re watching.

What is it teaching you? Do you want to learn that lesson?

– Scot Bellavia