The Secret Delight of Reality Television

Jersey Shore’s finale reminds us that TV’s primary purpose is entertainment.

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Cast of MTV's Jersey Shore

MTV will air the finale of its hit reality series, Jersey Shore, tonight. At one point it seemed like the show wouldn’t make it because of criticism and complaints from organizations like the New Jersey Italian American Legislative Caucus. Apparently, many were up in arms (but their fists weren’t pumping) about the stereotypical characters and negative depiction of Italian Americans. Admittedly no one wants to be judged based on the actions of a few. It’s like not wanting to introduce Uncle Pete, who lives in the back room, to your fiancé. There’s a need to explain and prove. But if I can sit through (and enjoy) three seasons of a 40-something-year-old hype man with a big clock around his neck, then surely my Italian brothers and sisters can stomach (and even smile at) some well-tanned, self-proclaimed guidos and guidettes with foul mouths, muscles and big hair.

Television is entertainment. Period. Sure, there are networks and programs that inform, but most times they’re not the ones scheduled for recording on our DVRs. When was the last time you watched a news network for three hours in prime time—when there wasn’t an election or natural disaster? The highest-rated shows on television are not on PBS. Americans like to be amused. And for many, reality programming provides just that amusement.

Most reality shows are train wrecks; tragic events that you can’t help but watch. But they’re also pretty funny. They provide classic lines (think “Danger, she smashed the homie”) to Tweet or post to Facebook, or cackle about at the water cooler. And in tough times, reality TV provides an escape for some. These characters can make people feel better about their lives. Just when someone thought their situation couldn’t get worse, they meet “The Situation” or Frankie and Neffe and realize it could be worse—a lot worse.

Television networks and executives get a lot of flak about the images they put on the screen. But is it really a network’s responsibility to portray only the best of a culture? Sure, there are people who have never left their hometowns and only interact with people who look like them. But the onus to be exposed to different cultures and make friends with people whose last names you can’t pronounce is on them, not television.

And let’s be honest. The colorful personalities and outrageous people featured on these shows do exist. There are girls I grew up with that drop it low like Bootz, cold-clock chicks like Sapphyri or have huge gluteus maximi like Deelishis. But I also know black women who make six-figures, raise strong, functional families and are anchors in the community. Are they featured on reality shows? Not so much. But when I want a good laugh and to sit on the couch with my jaw on the floor, I’m not looking for these women.

Jokes are always funny, when you’re not the butt of them. And the best jokes always have some truth to them. So I wonder if there’s something we see in these reality characters that we see in ourselves? Something we hate and don’t want the world to see in us? All of these characters are real. And if people think that taking them out of prime time is going to make them disappear, forget about it.

Lakeia Brown is a freelance writer in Atlanta.

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