Why do we revel in the bad luck of others? It’s a phenomenon that began to burgeon when we baby boomers were young. One answer, New Yorker Ellen Alexander writes, is TV. Which is anything but the real thing.
If, like so many baby boomers, you ever watched the game show “Family Feud,” which started airing in the late 70s and has had multiple reboots throughout the years, you’ve no doubt laughed and cheered as you witnessed families facing off against one another to reveal what ‘the survey says.’
While these families’ antics have been strictly for the entertainment of the TV audience, it is both amusing and annoying when comparing it to our own families’ arguing and infighting. There’s a reason why Thanksgiving gatherings have become fodder for comedians and attendees alike.
In reality, family feuds are anything but humorous. There is no handshaking over buzzers or insider bantering. Laughing at someone’s misfortune should not be a spectator sport. Some feuds actually require outside mediation. Others are beyond reconciliation.
As a society, we’re addicted to watching other families bicker and throw furniture on syndicated tabloid shows. We take wicked pleasure in reading about fallen celebrities who act ‘just like us.’ We deal with our own shortcomings by gloating over the knowledge that there will always be some other unfortunate soul’s ‘train wreck’ just around the corner.
The majority of family sitcoms that baby boomers watched growing up were, for some of us, the only glimpse into what a ‘normal’ family looked like. Practically perfect parents; rambunctious yet obedient children; dependable but nosy next-door neighbors, and the klutzy-but-oh-so-adorable family dog. They gave us a false sense of security as well as a belief in happily-ever-after.
It was almost as irresponsible for these shows to cater to certain audiences as it was for questionable and unhealthy products to be advertised or used as marketable props. Consumers had no idea they were being targeted and, as a result, many endured unforeseen and ill-fated futures. It was only as adults that we were able to witness the sad destruction of some of these beloved young actors who, as children, we emulated and envied.
We grew up unapologetically watching hours and hours of mind-numbing television. We were mesmerized by cartoons before school and on Saturday mornings. We honed our competitive natures while playing along with game show contestants. We learned— or at least thought we did— all about the law and medicine while sitting glued to our TV sets. It’s a small blessing that binge-watching wasn’t around back in the day or we probably wouldn’t have become successful and productive adults.
But cheering on discourse and hoping for disaster says more about us than it does about the contestants on TV. Our family disputes are never choreographed for ratings and there are no prizes for the victors. In fact, there are seldom winners at all, and bad blood can outlast the most contentious family feuds.