As Gordon Ramsay was contemplatively chewing deep-fried porcupine – on the premiere of MasterChef last T uesday – he may have been ruminating about the following:
Can you win a reality-show competition? Or should you win one? Meaning, are you both talented and worthy of big money? And, more important, are you worthy of the audience's pity?
These days, skills combined with dysphoric autobiography are the going criteria, if not the lex non scripta, of such shows.
On the two-part debut of MasterChef, on which amateurs perform for three renowned chefs, tears fell and fell, into gooseberry tartlets and squirrel pies: Reality TV is suddenly a competitive site for both skills and emotions. Sure, you can make a corn doughnut, but did you learn to make it in an iron lung?
Watching the weeping, and hearing and responding to the sad stories – it's like the early 1960s all over again.
Listen: "Yeah, he's all crippled up with cerebral palsy." This is Viva Birch talking about her son when she was a contestant on Queen for a Day, an extraordinary game show that ran on NBC from 1956 to 1964 and was hosted by the kindly, somewhat unctuous Jack Bailey.
On this show, women, ranging from frazzled housewives to tragedy-stricken widows, competed for a demented amount of prizes, the answer to their (always modest) dreams, and the opportunity to wear a red velvet cloak and mount a throne to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance, bedecked by dozens and dozens of white roses.
Mrs. Birch won, on one of the very few episodes still in existence: She won and she won. The very tired, mournful-looking lady looked stricken as everything from "a new floor polisher!" to a "gaily printed belt scarf!" to a "screening of Spartacus!" was heaped upon her plaintive desire for a wheelchair and special bike for her disabled boy.
"I clapped along with the studio audience," says Dolores Price, the tragic heroine of Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone. "I made my hands sting for these women."
This protagonist is referring to the applause meter: The harder a contestant's sad story was clapped for, the higher the needle climbed.
Now listen to this: "I've been shot at. Trucks blew up and I am still here. I just don't know why. So this has to be the reason." This is Joel, a U.S. Army Station Commander, born in Jamaica, sobbing openly about the tragic death of his child, Jermaine, and subsequent hardships in the line of duty, on MasterChef.
His chicken, peas and rice dish hardly seemed relevant: Chef Joel received one of the coveted white aprons, and tears across the board: He lit up Twitter with references to crying jags and tissue-box raids, and his story has been retold, time and time again, since his debut.
He may be newsworthy, but his unscripted collapse is not: As reality TV gets meaner (combative contestants appear to be chosen for their warm relationship with psychopathy,) it gets softer and sweeter at the same time.
On Celebrity Apprentice this year, Arsenio Hall wept openly about the charity he was working for, referring continually to a family member who died, while being both unpleasant in the extreme to his co-competitors and obviously inferior to his final fellow apprentice, Clay Aiken, who never squalled at all.
Similarly, on American Idol, during tryout week, the producers pieced together short, dramatic films about particularly woebegone, always-attractive contestants, ignoring the genuinely tragic, monstrous and deformed people, who are mocked and shuddered at.
And, in the last (second) season of Work of Art, judge and art critic Jerry Saltz berated an artist, Katherine, for not "pushing yourself hard enough."
She cried so suddenly and loudly at this critique that she appeared to be vomiting tears. "What do you want from me?" was her unspoken yelp. An excellent question.
There are two reasons why competition shows are now promoting gross emotional incidents and responses.
One, the monstrous greed and consumerism of the enterprises, the savagery of the competitors must be mitigated. Queen for a Day was not really about what a broken-down waitress of 25 years (Viva) really needed; it was the first of many shows to advertise products under the guise of, benevolently, gifting them.
And two, in order for audiences to support, even love people who are attempting to succeed far better than them, they must, again, pity them.
As such shows (even Work of Art, with its artistic criteria) rage about sincerity and truth, these great commodities, ultimately, evanesce beneath the sham that is the available context.
Joel's story is terribly sad; Viva's remains sad in its shaky, blurred remains.
But what does it mean to cry for them?
English academic Laurence Lerner, whose work explicates "the overlap and differences between literature and crying," may call our attention to the "elaborate rhetorical clichés" that currently posture as authentic emotion among the watched and the watchers.
Or he, or anyone for that matter, may understand that to cry, quickly and well, is nothing more than expelling a feeling – like a sneeze – into oblivion.
There is no lasting effect; the vast empathy expended simply disappears.
The Idol mini-film stars are usually voted off quickly, and it is impossible to remember them in the matter of a week.
Instead of "working up" (as T.S. Eliot said, with distaste, in an essay about the personal) one's emotions through counterfeit means, viewers may want to start caring less about the criers and more about what is being cried about: pandemic illness, death, sacred mysteries and so on.
Then do something about it.