TV Tragedy for Today

I’ve been meaning (“struggling”) to write this post for a while, but today, between an audition for “Project Macbeth” and the season premiere of “The Biggest Loser: The Next Generation,” I think I have the ideal sweet spot.

My hypothesis, if you deign to entertain my reasoning, is that “makeover” reality TV is, functionally, today’s version of Theatrical Tragedy.

I’m going to start off with a very casual definition of Tragedy and its function.

“Tragedy” is, basically, one of the two genres of theatre as defined by Aristotle. The other is comedy. Generally, in Ancient Greek theatre, Tragedy was overall very emotional and ended with lots of death and regret. Comedy, on the other hand, was essentially funny and ended in a way that no one really felt bad about. Shakespeare’s tragedies often ended with everyone dead, and his comedies usually “end with a marriage” (or so the saying goes, and I don’t know whether someone is credited with saying this, or whether it’s just… the truth). Shakespeare also did historical plays, but sometimes they would cross over into one or the other, but their main function would be (obviously) “teaching history.” Regardless of whether these plays were tragedies or comedies, bad things happen to the characters, there would be setbacks, and the main characters would inevitably make bad choices (which cause the audience to wriggle in their seats because they’re aware of this – “dramatic irony”). Aristotle said that he found the main difference between Tragedy and Comedy to be how we perceived the characters: Comedy characters were petty, silly, simple, or otherwise perceived to be “beneath us,” while Tragic Heroes are those whom we identify with, or see as being even greater than ourselves.

While the function of Comedy is to help relieve tension about someone or something annoying in our lives and teach us to laugh at ourselves, the function of Tragedy, generally, is to keep society “in line.” What that could mean is anything from “Don’t think you’re greater than the Gods and their prophecies,” (Oedipus Rex), to “Don’t kill an English King” (Macbeth)  or “Don’t listen to your stupid wife” (re-writing of Macbeth, as I heard about from a friend today). Basically, if you sat down and thought about ANY Tragedy that you know, and take into consideration the time period and the culture, you see that they work as cautionary tales to basically scare you into behaving the right way. How this happens is tied to our perception of the Tragic Hero. As I said before, we must perceive our Hero to be “like us” or greater than us. We watch as, somewhere along the line, they made a mistake that WE could have SO EASILY MADE! Then we follow them through their fall from grace (“peripeteia”), and their realisation (“anagnorisis”) and grief. We empathise with them and feel “pity and fear,” where fear is for seeing their punishment and imagining it to be ours, and the pity is firstly feeling bad for them, but simultaneously experiencing a massive sense of relief that it is not ACTUALLY us (this dual “Oh shiiii/Thank goodness it’s not me,” is to what the original use of “catharsis”/katharsis refers). We walk out of the theatre thinking, “That could have been ME suffering so much… I’d better keep an eye on my behaviour and make sure I act the right way.”

Now, I know you’re thinking, “But makeover-style reality tv doesn’t have a bad ending!”

And yes, I know. But bear with me. In these makeover tv shows (I wish there was a shorter/easier way to refer to it), they basically show a post-choice, pre/peri-anagnorisis Tragic Hero, and we follow the journey of a human “Deux-Ex Machina” who swoops down to save them in a different type of peripeteia. We then follow them, suffering the outcome of their error, struggling against what has become a destructive part of their nature.

That is why, as I write this, I see teams of overweight people panicking over the trainers having “watched” them, opening up about their sins and their story, before they reveal exactly what they have to change.  It’s why I see episodes of hoarders with their family coming in and crying, saying, “It’s always been messy… I never realised it had got THIS far.”

And that is why, while I watch them, while my friends watch them, we all think, “Oh, at least I’m not THAT bad.” We feel better about ourselves, feel more “normal,” but it’s also reinforced in us exactly what “normal” is. It’s a “healthy” weight, a comfortably clean house, no unusual habits, modest and flattering clothes (even if they don’t suit our personality), and a situation where we look slim, young, healthy and happy. Maybe if we had bigger societal goals to worry about, we might see more of that type of show, but instead we are reassured that we are, or can be, average and normal. And should you feel inspired to makeover your OWN life, there are always strategically placed ads in the breaks to help us become or maintain what we “should” be.

Please! Let me know if this is somehow unclear or you have questions.

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