In writer/director Rod Lurie's political thriller, The Contender, The President, played brilliantly by a cynical-yet-noble Jeff Bridges, states "Sometimes greatness comes in the form of sacrifice. That's the loneliest form." Granted, the guy isn't Joan of Arc. He was just a T.V. host. But, the quote does, in fact, apply in regards to what Dunkleman gave up and had to endure (five years on the Hollywood blacklist) because of what he, personally, didn't want to be a part of.
Here was a guy who saw what was happening to the kids on this new, yet untested, show he was the co-star of and, because of that, he made an incredibly tough, and subsequently, wildly unpopular decision to walk away. Did he know he was sacrificing millions at the time? Probably not. But, the show was a hit and he was the host.
He hasn't spoken about his decision to leave Idol in years, but, somehow, while talking with him last week, I managed to get him to open up about it.
"You have to remember," he said, "this was the first time anyone had ever seen abuse like this on national television. And, it was being done to children. On purpose." He goes on to say, "When American Idol first launched back in the summer of 2002, the most awful thing anyone had seen to that point was a bunch of drunken college kids arguing on The Real World or contestants eating a handful of snakes on Survivor."
We talked about the fact that, since that time, it's not uncommon to watch six-year-old pageant contestants push each other off the stage, mothers who encourage that behavior, teens setting homeless people on fire on Youtube, and bimbos hitting each other in the face with frying pans, in the hopes of winning a date with some rich schmuck who'll dump them five seconds after the cameras stop rolling. And, oh yeah, there's still kids being insulted and humiliated all over the place, but, at this point, we're so desensitized to it it's like coming home to a warm bath. It's where we turn for comfort when Drunken Pregnant Teen Moms becomes a bit too much (we still have some standards). Gone are the days when adults criticizing kids was so shocking it prompted Oprah to devote an entire show to it. These days, at some point or another, most of the same producers have done business with her.
I half-jokingly quipped that perhaps Simon Cowell is responsible for the decay of western civilization as we know it, to which he responded, "Simon's a great guy. He really is. And, while it's obviously never one person's fault, he knew, and knows, exactly what he was doing. But, it wasn't just him. It was all of the show's producers moving their focus away from what was supposed to be the show's goal - of finding undiscovered talent - and, instead, zeroing in on finding undiscovered talent they could make cry. To them, adults making children cry in prime time television was a ratings bonanza. It turned out they weren't wrong. But, I wanted no part of it."
As my dad always says, "Pay me now, or pay me later." Well, when it comes to the hedonistic culture we've carved out for ourselves using the twisted and backwards formula Reality Shows+Social Media+Quick-Buck-Lifestyle=happiness, it certainly seems now is "later." And, boy are we paying. It's almost like the entire country signed up to watch an Anti-Tony Robbins seminar and we're all valedictorian.
Almost every aspect of our lives has been dramatically altered by the one-two punch of reality shows and Twitter, followed closely behind by the incessant barrage of online news telling you who's doing better than you. For most of us at this point, real life does, indeed, seem like a reality show:
Wall St. bandits run off with your money and you're stuck having to work two jobs to buy a tank of gas. Meanwhile, some guy shoots everyone in the house next door to you, and your wife finds out you're cheating on her because your girlfriend tweeted it. In between those wonderful moments, the media bombards us with images of celebrities, tech geeks, athletes, and people who are famous for being drunk who make more in five minutes than you will in your lifetime.
Now, grab a beer - or five- and you're ready to flick on that T.V., or laptop, and curl up with pundits arguing, mob wives arguing, teenagers arguing, wannabe chefs, models, and hairstylists arguing, children crying, or the icing on the cake, some serious-ass beatings on UFC!
Of course, let's not forget the parents of the six-year-old kid who made that video Youtube just took down, who defiantly say they're looking forward to video #2. Of course, they are. To them, the controversy means a potential payday. Forget about the fact it's bordering on child abuse to encourage sexual and suggestive behavior between a first grader and strippers. In the end, it's just another news byte.
The reality is, reality T.V. has completely destroyed our sense of decency toward one another, while causing us to re-prioritize our goals. It's more important now that our favorite couple wins Dancing with the Stars than it is to make sure our kid isn't out there snorting bath salts and eating the neighbor's face off.
Nowhere is this sentiment better represented than in the speech given by "Frank," the anti-hero in director Bobcat Goldthwaite's dark dramedy, God Bless America. In it, Frank talks about how, not only have we lost our morals, we wear our shamelessness as a badge of honor. He talks about how the entire country has become the Colosseum and we're the eager Romans. Constantly pining to see the gladiators fight to the death.
If you step back and look at the stories of cannibalism, kid shootings, setting ex-girlfriends on fire (and the towing company making the burned victim pay for her car removal), cutting people up and mailing their body parts, eating your roommate's heart and brain, and cutting out your own intestines and throwing it at the police, to name just a few, he may have a point.
No matter how old or young we are, we all, to some degree or another, emulate what we see on screens, big or small. Remember the 70s movie, The Warriors? People ran out of the theaters, charged into bathrooms, and ripped the sinks out of the walls. Now, imagine The Warriors is on 24/7 on every channel. That's what it's like today. It's amazing they haven't done Barney gets a Beatdown yet on Sprout.
Is there a link between reality shows and reality? The Washington Post reports 63% of adults think this country is on the wrong track. You can't say that none of that comes from the media. We're not just talking reality shows, either. The selfish, quick and easy way is evident all around us. Just ask a Kardashian.
Practically all music played on the radio sounds like it was written, produced, and released in five minutes to parrot the tone of our culture (Call Me, Maybe!) Movies have gone beyond just being sequel-happy. Forget about parts 2 and 3. Studios have no qualms remaking part 1 over and over again (Spiderman) if it means a quick weekend return. Less work, maybe. Less creativity, brain activity, and art. Absolutely. Sure, there will always be some great artists out there, but now you have to wade through a swamp to find them, and by that time, yer covered from head to toe in you-know-what.
Don't think for a second that the folks down at "City Hall" are above all this insanity. The obvious sad "reality" is, our elected officials, the ones we ask to lead by example, seem dead set on trying to do everything they can to emulate the immature, uncompromising, apathetic behavior emulated by reality shows.
br /> Congress is at a stalemate. The Supreme Court argue like infants. And, stubborn governors openly defy the president, promising to refuse his executive orders, so, "Nyah, nyah, nyah to your health care bill!"
Of course, it's not Simon Cowell's fault. But, giving him, and the Cowellettes, twenty different talent shows on five different networks certainly doesn't help matters much.
The way things are now, we could definitely use a few more Brian Dunkleman's. Not only in entertainment, but in business, politics, education, etc.
You can keep your mega-rich Ryan Seacrest's. I'll take a broke Brian Dunkleman anytime, and twice on Sunday.