Meredy and I travelled to Toronto over the Thanksgiving holiday (where they had celebrated Txgiving about 6 weeks earlier) to have a visit with her sweet Mom. Joanie is 91 and is happiest in her own home, so we tend to just go with her agenda, which included watching the finals of Dancing With The Stars. Now I don’t recall ever having seen DWTS before, or if I did, it had not yet evolved/devolved into its present form. (I have also never followed American Idol, America’s Got Talent, or The Voice…though I have been Facebook-exposed to various performances which seem to have developed into a rather formulaic format of enthralled audience, several attractive judges and one caustic cynic… occasionally won over to the delight of all by some precocious child…and quick camera shots of relatives or lovers hovering curtain-side backstage giving various forms of thumbs-up. Yet I found myself stunned in witnessing the complete program spectacle, a form of Hunger Games put to music.
The first rule seems to be that each contestant must have a back story: the ex-child star making a performance comeback; the girl who rose from her sick bed after some horrendous accident, never to walk again and here she is dancing for us!!; the fellow dancing for his deceased grandmother who always believed in him; the contestant who rose from some unspeakable background who found himself through dance and now wishes to erase all poverty through a stunning salsa/tango hybrid performance. Each introduction is preceded by a flashback, so that each of us can become emotionally connected to the dancer. Flashbacks are also provided for what can only be described as “the Losers”…that is dancers who have been eliminated in recent weeks. Costumes are elaborate, shaming even ice skaters in their frilly exuberance. Smoke machines work overtime. Product placement is everywhere (my favorite being the routine in front of a fake Starbucks). Studio dancers, “the pros”, treat us to a variety of numbers in between contestants and the endless commercials just to remind us what “real” dancers do and to kill loads of time due to the dearth of contestants in the final show. And the judges advise and encourage the chosen few to “feel the dance”, “let go and be the music”, “convince us that you care”..and my favorite direct no-no, “stop looking at your feet!”. Yet all of this is designed, as Huxley once commented to produce “a craving for … emotional enemas” for all spectators…the music blares, the smoke rises, the judges love them…but wait… the audience gets to vote by calling in, if they can lay aside their Kleenex and call before the end of yet more sponsor’s messages. It is all simply and fantastically cathartic. By the end there are bodies littering the stage, contestants are swarmed, klieg lights strafe the sky, the music is ever louder, fireworks somehow appear and one can see through the smoke that the winner is being carried about above the throng while the runners-up vanish into the crowd to join the season-long list of other losers. And we, emotionally spent, in some sort of semi-refractory state slouch back onto the couch to await the football games of the next morning, when more back stories will be told, a returning service person will be reunited with their child or lover while jets fly overhead and gladiators take the field in a clash of Titans.
Meanwhile, I read this morning that the Koch brothers have backed a deal to control Sports Illustrated, Better Homes and Gardens, People, and Time magazine…pretty much completing their several decade-long crusade to control American politics by controlling the American mind. Yet, in the end, they needn’t have gone to all the trouble. It seems as if the American mind has been numbed and dumbed into passivity, cajoled into caring about the trivial and seduced into emotional catharsis. Having finally elected a shallow TV personality to the highest office in the land, we are stretched out on the couch, more likely now to vote on DWTS than on the first Tuesday of November. Game, set, match. Thank you for tuning in.