What Reality TV Can Teach Us About Trust: You’re Cut Off

As we’ve been hearing endlessly, various measures of trust have been declining for some years now. If and when the tide turns—what will we notice first? Here’s an interesting possibility: a shift in the tone of reality TV.

I am not a fan of reality TV shows. Most appeal to low-grade prurient interest (think Jersey Shore as an incestuous offspring of Jerry Springer). Others—Survivor being the prototype—just feature winning-at-all-costs competition.

I confess to having instantly liked two, however. One was American Idol, and I can explain why in two words: Simon Cowell. Not because he was snarky, but because he was the truth-teller, the voice of standards and quality and reality that everyone else wished they could wish away, but that ultimately ruled.

And, I was fascinated by the first year of The Apprentice. Then bored to tears by year two. I still have no idea why, but suspect Omarosa had something to do with it.

Well, here’s number three. I stumbled (honest!) upon a new VHS1 show called You’re Cut Off, and I’ll go out on a limb and make two predictions: first, this one’s going to be a hit. Second, it might be a harbinger of better times for trust.

Episode 1: Revenge of the Have-Nots

9 of the United States’ most selfish, preening, snobby, self-obsessed, narcissistic 20-something women are brought to Hollywood under false pretenses: that they’ll participate in a reality TV show called The Good Life. In a brilliantly contrived bit of theater, they are all filmed in a Rodeo Drive type luxury store simultaneously having their credit cards refused, and being sent to customer services.

Once gathered in customer services, they are informed that this is an intervention. The host of the show, a professional life coach, shows them video clips of their parents, husbands, and other enablers (none of these ladies are self-supporting) telling them, “It’s over, dear, you’re on your own; I hear Mickey D’s is hiring, you should go apply—because you’re cut off.” The looks on their faces are low-rent, bottom-feeding reality TV show at its best/worst, and you can’t help gloating over the public face-slapping these women have received.

But the ignominy is just beginning, as they’re driven away in vans (“a van? Do people actually drive in these? Where’s my limo?”) to a suburban house (“OMG, we’re in the ghetto…not even my housekeeper lives like this…”), where they proceed to descend even deeper by attacking each other.

At episode’s end, the life coach tells them the deal: they are to lose their evil ways, or they may lose their families for good. Even in episode 1, you can see the glimmer of insight in two pairs of eyes; and the power of continued denial in several more.

Episodes to Come: Redemption

The show is nicknamed “princess rehab,” and it’s apt. This is where I think the producers showed genius. There are only a few possible endings. The best ending is actually the most likely; that most of these basket cases achieve some level of self-realization and become at least willing to try to turn their lives around. 

Using an actual rehab, I suspect, wouldn’t work. Filming real interventions and real rehabs would require watching drug addicts and alcoholics, who would appear largely unsympathetic to a TV audience. But neither could we easily hate real addicts and alcoholics; the stories are too tragic and too real. And real world recidivism rates are depressingly high. It just wouldn’t work as TV.

Enter princess rehab: problem solved. We have no problem hating the self-absorbed, parodies of materialistic abuse that these ladies represent. And I suspect we will be drawn to a tale of a true convert. Any of the 9 who undergoes a Saul on the road to Damascus realization—or even shows big hints of getting it—will probably be welcomed by all of us.

As they (hopefully) renounce their wicked ways and tearfully join humanity, we will gladly accept them back, for they will have endorsed basic American values of self-reliance and humility. We’ll love them for having become just like us (or, more properly, just like what we like to think others think of us as being).

The show is set up to be about redemption; which makes it unlike any other I can think of (Biggest Loser seems tinged with self- and other-pity that I hope this show can avoid). What would it mean to have a reality TV show that is not about winning, beating others, outdoing each other in performing disgusting acts, forming backstabbing alliances, or faking love? That instead, is about redemption?

Lessons for Trust

I don’t think we’d have seen this show a few years ago. The mood of the country is cynical, mistrustful, especially about the rich and powerful, and these 9 young ladies will do very well as proxy lightning rods for the venting.

But the show is not set up to stop at revenge. Unlike all the others (including Biggest Loser) this one has the potential to be win-win-win. If most of the ladies learn to not take others for granted, to clean up their own kitchens, pick up after their dog, and think occasionally about the needs of others—well, there is no loser in that.  They all win. Society wins. 

And trust would win. The biggest destroyer of trust is extreme self-orientation.  These ladies exhibit that in spades at the outset. I suspect we’ll all be watching: first, to leer at the train-wreck of their lives; later, to see if they can redeem themselves.