Thursday, January 27, 2011

Emotional Exploitation or Show Biz?

Many reality shows discovered that one of the keys to motivate viewers to vote and get engaged in contestants' progress is to unveil their sob stories, a ploy not used with any regularity since early game show Queen for a Day did it in the 1950s and 60s. Each season on shows like American Idol or America's Got Talent, contestants share their tales of heartbreak, hope and struggle to rebuild their lives. (The winners of the last two seasons of Talent have been a poor "chicken picker" who could barely carry a tune, and a talented singer who nevertheless lived with his grandparents who had been impoverished following Hurricane Katrina.)

American Idol, however, seems to have cornered the market on the relationship sob story. Three seasons ago singing hopeful Danny Gokey shared the story of his wife dying of a heart ailment shortly after their marriage, and she had always hoped he'd make it as a singer. Not content to let that image linger in viewers' minds, the producers used a hammer instead. Following Gokey's first performance, the camera cut to one of his friends holding a picture of his late wife, tears streaming down his face and pointing heavenward. Although some critical outrage followed, which led to a slight toning down of the manipulation, Gokey often picked songs to remind people of his tragedy—What Hurts the Most and You Are So Beautiful being most notable. In the end, however, voters chose to bounce Gokey just before the finals.

The following season saw multiple stories of single mothers trying to make it for their children, contestants serving as caregivers for terminally ill parents, a contestant whose grandmother was in the early stages of Alzheimer's, etc, but none quite captured the voters like tween heartthrob Lee Dewyze.

This season, though, it appears the producers may have hit the jackpot. After sharing a few sob stories in the first two episodes (including a 16-year-old who had previously been confined to a wheelchair for several years), they introduced 26-year-old Chris Medina, an Illinois barista who brought his fiance with him to his audition. Sounds fine until you understand that his fiance sustained a significant traumatic brain injury in an accident two weeks before their wedding, and now Medina is her caregiver.

Medina talked about being there for his fiance "for better for worse, in sickness and in health." And of course, after proving that he actually could sing well (and perhaps would have made it to the next round without the sympathy vote), the judges "asked" him to bring Julia into the audition room. Sadly, one has to question whether she was truly aware of what was going on around her, including Steven Tyler's whispering "he sings for you" in her ear.

Oh, and did I mention he chose to sing "Breakeven" by The Script, which includes the line "when a heart breaks, no it don't break even." (God, I'm such a grumpy cynic.)

Exploitation or just show business? You decide.

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