Why do we love reality TV?

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Watching season five of American Idol auditions over the last few weeks, complete with humiliating scenes in which Simon Cowell tells someone that he looks like the Incredible Hulk’s wife, has renewed my fascination for the kind of pleasure this brings.

“Elimination TV,” in which contestants, viewers or judges vote someone off the show each week, has become the hottest new genre. Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance? have a certain appeal in an era when nobody knows a single formal dance step, but Fox is selling the new Skating With Celebrities not on the beauty of figure skating but on the terrible bruises and devastating falls that it promises us. Viewers seem to crave this degradation—we get a perverse joy out of seeing a bad dancer attacked by a judge who says glumly: “That did not go well.”

We watch these shows because we live in a culture that increasingly withdraws from holding its members to a standard of excellence. We have become so relentlessly affirming that every child in the kindergarten class gets to take home an award or a ribbon, even if she was the one eating paste and pulling someone else’s hair. Grade inflation has made “C” an acceptable mark of failure, and we pass students who cannot read through 12 grades. My own pleasure in American Idol comes from a sense of justice buried deep within my American psyche, the joy of knowing that people without talent are finally going to get what they deserve.

This may explain why so many of the judging figures in reality television are British, and why American Idol is the offshoot of a British series. Ever since we declared our independence from the English, we have imagined them as upholding everything that we willingly left behind: tradition, manners, discipline, enunciation, grammar. Simon Cowell is the snobby, cruel, heartless English man that we love to hate. It’s impossible to imagine the series with only the polite put-downs of Paula and Randy: “I don’t think singing is your thing. What else would you like to do with your life?” Simon and the angry chef from Hell’s Kitchen are more beastly versions of the British nannies on Supernanny and Nanny 911, who come to out-of-control homes to snap out “That’s not OK!” to hundreds of spoiled American brats.

Once the auditions are over, genuinely talented singers will join the new Top 12 on American Idol, and some of my pleasure will come from seeing them do well. We all love the tears of the deserving winner at the series finale. Yet Simon will still be there with his witty metaphors for how horrible someone sounded that week, like the return of our repressed desire for a real work ethic and high standards. Maybe these shows will teach us the lesson that we want to learn so badly: discipline your children, expect greater things from them and you will have a reason to be truly proud.

Eleanor Hersey is an English professor at Fresno Pacific University. She teaches courses on literature and film and has published several articles on film and television, including Seinfeld and The X-Files, in academic journals. An avid American Idol fan, Hersey won’t answer the phone during the show, even for family members.

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