Think TV is a wasteland? Here are two reality shows that are hip and healing
By Rabbi Marc Gellman
Feb. 16 – After seeing a television picture for the first time some 60 years ago, the writer E.B. White said, “This will either be a grave disturbance or a saving radiant light.” In retrospect, the grave-disturbance theory has basically trounced the saving-radiant-light theory—except for any episode of “I love Lucy,” the coverage of the first lunar landing and a few nature programs most of which begin with the somnolescent preface, “The platypus is a very interesting animal.” Look, if you can find some saving spiritual lesson in “Jackass” please enlighten me immediately.
However, I feel the stirrings of the saving radiant pixels of a new age. Who would have thought that the prophets for this generation of spiritually acceptable television would be a hip-hop rapper named Xzibit and an ex-J Crew model named Ty Pennington. I hereby proclaim the Gospel of “Pimp My Ride” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” What I see in these two shows is a saving radiant glimmer of how television married to compassion (and a blown 450cc short block engine) can produce programs that are both hip and healing, both popular and profound.
For those of you who have only just returned from Alpha Centauri and have not yet seen these shows, “Pimp” is on MTV. That in and of itself is astounding because MTV is the Mt. Sinai of the grave-disturbance theory. “Makeover” is on ABC, which in its own act of moral blindness brings us “Desperate Housewives” immediately following “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Anyway, both shows select poor, needy and worthy people, some of whom are also courageous and sick. On “Pimp My Ride,” a hunk of steaming junk from a hysterically grateful recipient is driven by Xzibit to West Coast Custom body shop in L.A. to be stripped and rebuilt from the metal up by a team of charismatic car trolls who delight in going to any lengths to make the new car a thing of beauty and fantasy for its needy owner. In “Extreme Makeover,” the run-down house of hysterically grateful recipients is demolished and then a new house is built in one week, usually on a new and vastly enlarged foundation by Ty and his team of design and production hotties.
The convulsive gratitude of the recipients upon first seeing their new ride or new home far exceeds anything I have ever witnessed among the grateful people I know (both of them). And let me tell you I have seen the transfixed ecstasy of Pentecostal snake handlers and it is nothing compared to the joy of a guy learning that he now has a bowling ball washer in the trunk of his car.
What makes these two shows not just kind and weepy but actually luminous is the way they unselfconsciously obliterate the traditional ways we often treat the poor. First, both shows treat the needy without a hint of condescension or pity. They respect these people completely. It is that respect, more than the pimped-out ride or the new house, that is the real gift. Also the workers on both shows work with real joy. Charity is often seen as a dutiful burden, but in these cases it is a labor of love. Psalm 100 says, “Serve the Lord in joy.” I checked in vain the ancient commentaries for a reference to the joy produced by trunk-mounted bowling ball washers, but who knows what King David had in mind 3,000 years ago when he wrote that psalm?
What touches me most is that when we give to the poor and needy, we almost always give them just a taste of what they need while these shows give them a taste of what they dream. In both shows the hysterically grateful recipients of automotive and appliance largesse are given not just a redone car or house, but a fabulously redone car or house. The cars are painted in iridescent colors with leather upholstery to match and come with zillion-watt sound systems and blinged-out rims with phat flat tires. Even wild fantasy is given its due with tv monitors installed under the car, and let us not forget the ubiquitous bowling ball washer.
In “Extreme Makeover” the houses are often doubled in size with two-story gyms and central HEPA air cleaners imported from Switzerland and covered outdoor pools with waterfalls and disco illuminated floors and wine cellars filled with wine or hay barns filled to the brim with hay to sell. This gift of a new house, let us be honest, far exceeds both in monetary and moral value the gift of a hot car for even a needy twenty-something, but all the people chosen on both shows are needy mensches and in the end that is all that really matters.
To give the poor a gift that far exceeds their wildest imagination and to give that gift with respect and joy is not just a good thing; it is a new and saving thing whose radiance, I feel certain in my soul, will let ol’ E.B. rest in peace, assuming of course he can’t tune in to see the new season of “The Bachelorette.”
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.