Painful reality check
We already know that truth is stranger than fiction because there is no soap opera in this country that’s more riveting or bizarre than what we see in the news.
So when reality television shows hit our local idiot boxes, we knew it was going to be a fad because the possibilities were simply endless. We happen to be a country with a very high threshold for the absurd. We put up with all kinds of shenanigans from our leaders. We find something to laugh at even amongst the gravest life and death situations. We do not stone to death government officials who have the audacity to stand by implausible election results.
We know that simply watching real people in a glass house can be entertaining because those people are Filipinos and therefore expected to be funny, dramatic, crazy, opinionated, etc.
It’s a small wonder then that “Pinoy Big Brother” is a hit in this country.
The second “regular” season of the show is currently running and is scheduled to end in two week’s time. Technically, it is the fourth run of the show which also had a celebrity edition and a teen edition. I caught some of the episodes of the current edition during its first month and promptly tuned off because it was, in a word, boring.
As I wrote in my blog, it struck me that the current PBB housemates were chosen primarily for reasons that have to do with aesthetics rather than personality mix or talent.
As can be expected, the housemates simply indulged in mindless chitchat or lazed around in various stages of undress. The show’s production people had to stimulate the housemates with all kinds of activities and tasks before any action or excitement could happen.
But then I underwent surgery and stayed home for a couple of weeks so I tuned back in—or tried to at least. I’ve been a passive viewer in the last two weeks. Ordinarily, these last few weeks should be exciting and frenzied as the show builds up toward its finale.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. In fact, it is the opposite that is happening. It’s the level of inactivity and ennui that has increased. Thus, the show has been experimenting with all kinds of psychological tactics to produce something remotely interesting. The tactics now border on manipulation, exploitation and emotional abuse. A number of my friends (including some psychologists) have been urging me to write about the situation.
“Pinoy Big Brother” is being marketed as the teleserye ng totoong buhay (real- life soap opera). The show makes big pronouncements about how it celebrates the Filipino within us. It is not accidental that the show’s theme song is “Pinoy, Ikaw Ay Pinoy” (You Are Filipino). The show also goes to town with how it is about helping individuals achieve personal growth, service to others, world peace, and yada yada yada. In short, it’s supposed to be the next best thing to ice cream.
Thus, we expect reality. We expect truth. We expect drama and tantrums and conflicts, but we don’t want to see the scripted version. We expect the real thing. But sadly, what we have been seeing is getting farther and farther from the truth. While those kids in the show, as well as their emotions, may be real, their situation is not. The reality they live in is getting more and more contrived and scripted. It’s not reality TV anymore; it is worse—it is fiction being packaged as reality.
Watching the current season has ceased to be entertaining. It has become emotionally draining instead. The housemates have become virtual puppets that are manipulated to produce “money shots”—you know, those gripping moments when emotions build up and erupt and consequently make ratings zoom up to the stratosphere.
What we’ve been seeing in the last few days have been frenzied efforts to subject the housemates to various forms of stress and pressure all designed to produce an emotional breakdown. In short, money shots. (Okay, adult readers can also make parallelism with pornography. It is the same concept.)
“Pinoy Big Brother” makes all these under the guise of helping the housemates conquer their fears and traumas. It is supposed to be a free lesson on the dynamics of human behavior. I have nothing against helping people in this aspect. At the very least, it makes for good entertainment such as when people who have a phobia for snakes are forced to handle reptiles. However, it does not make for good psychology. It’s not that simple.
Helping people cope with psychological issues cannot be reduced to a few seconds of airtime. So in the end, it really does more disservice to the cause of mental health.
To cite an example, I have fear of heights. When this information was revealed at a dinner party, someone actually suggested that I conquer it by visiting the roofdeck of the tallest building in Makati and standing as close as possible to the edge until I am able to get used to the height. That’s what they do on those television shows, he said. Well, that’s really terrible and dangerous (in not downright fatal) advice.
We know that “Pinoy Big Brother” is first and foremost a business project designed to rake in revenues; that it needs to compete for ratings. Regular soap operas do this by adding more special effects and increasing body count. Obviously reality TV can’t do that although this edition certainly produced a number of casualties who had to be rushed to the hospital.
What “Pinoy Big Brother” has done is up the ante in terms of emotional manipulation. Their main tool has been to expose the weaknesses, the hangups, the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the housemates. They used to do it subtly. Now it is brazen. They even brought in a housemate from the first season known for his brutal frankness to perform a specific job description: To sow intrigues and to make the housemates fight. When that didn’t work, they resorted to airing taped conversations that were supposedly done in confidence. The show has just pushed the cause of counseling two steps back. I can already see guidance counselors having to deal with doubts about the wisdom of sharing confidences.
How did we get here? We simply expected a “teleserye ng totoong buhay.” We did not expect the show to package protagonists and antagonists that people can hate or love or choose from.
It is very easy to blame the housemates for the mess they find themselves in. After all, they responded to the cattle call and volunteered to be part of it. But they did so with hopes of earning a quick ticket to stardom and supposedly, a better life. I am sure they did not expect that they would be hated or ridiculed by the public.
Now we are seeing the ugly side of reality TV. At its very essence, it is about using people. It is about abusing those who are willing to submit to anything just to achieve celebrity status.