Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Daytime TV and The Facsimile of American Justice

Why American audiences are so gonzo for courtroom shows…and why that’s something WAY worse about modern society than you’d think

When I was a wee young lad, periodically, I would get sick and have to miss a day of school or two. And when I did, I got very excited, because that gave me the ability to do something that, normally, I didn’t get the chance to - watch daytime television.

In my youth, daytime TV was pretty much a smorgasbord of low-culture cheese, schlock, and sensational rubbish - essentially, the televised version of all those defunct weeklies you used to find at the checkout counter proclaiming Congress was infiltrated by Martians, or that Sasquatch was engaged to a beauty queen from Indiana. Ricki Lake, Yolando, Sally Jesse Raphael, pre-fist fighting Jerry Springer…all wonderful access points to scintillating sex scandals, shock rock music controversies and, if you were lucky, a weekly donnybrook involving members of the Klan breaking Geraldo’s nose.

Granted, those programs from way back when were all undeniably stupid and exploitative, but they were a gentler, more innocent form of stupid and exploitative. Looking back today, even the crassest and most idiotic of daytime television shows from the early 1990s seem fairly staid now, especially considering the nose-dive into the super-mega-hyper-exploitative models pioneered by neo-carnies like Maury Povich in the late 1990s.

Alas, the era of the exploitative talk show - you know, the ones with alternatively fist fighting and marrying cousins and dudes that break dance following an “all-clear” paternity test result - seem to have gone the way of Morton Downey and Wally George. Yeah, a lot of talk shows are still being syndicated (it seems as if Springer will have a run as lengthy as “The Simpsons” at this point), but over the past five or so years, we’ve seen a gradual transition towards more infotainment styled programs - in essence, a series of programs modeled after “The View,” albeit focused on more reduced categories, like healthcare (not that the heaviest TV watchers of any demographic are senior citizens or anything.)

Today’s daytime TV landscape is remarkably different than the landscape I remembered - no longer a haven for infidelity fantasies and vicarious degradation of the poor, a majority of modern daytime TV offerings are virtual catchalls for a target audience with an aggregate age well north of the retirement limit.

Consider me just a little bummed to recently flip through the daytime TV gamut and stumble across “Doctor Oz” as opposed to incestuous racists on Montel, or the million billion “View” imitators instead of cross-dressing trannies with a secret on Jenny Jones. For a moment, it seemed as if the furtive misogyny, racism and ethnocentricism - not to mention the sensational ridicule of the less fortunate - that was a hallmark of daytime TV for decades had, surprisingly, vanished from the airwaves. And then, I did some more channel surfing, and came to the realization that such crassness hadn’t disappeared…it simply changed formats to a totally different kind of daytime program.

Here’s an experiment you can try the next time you’re around  a TV set at 11 in the morning. Start on channel 2, and flip your way all the way to the end of the dial - counting up all of the “courtroom” shows you encounter along the way.

In my trial run, I’m almost certain that half of the daytime programming I encountered began with the word “Judge,” or at the least, had some sort of facsimile of a courtroom setting. While small claims court shows are absolutely nothing new - lest we forget “The People’s Court” and all that - the thing that struck me about these new wave “judge shows” was just how brazenly racist and sexist they all are.

Look, “racism” and “sexism” are words that I think are thrown out way too often, and I try to use such terms sparingly myself, but holy hell, I don’t think anybody can challenge my use of the phrases when describing modern daytime courtroom programs.

If you’ve seen one “judge” show, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Over the course of an hour, about two or three cases are paraded out, most always consisting of minorities or evidently lower class white folk. The defendants and plaintiffs are very, very rarely painted as educated in any regard, and it seems pretty obvious that most of the people that go on such shows are pretty poor. Over the course of ten to fifteen minutes, these figures are berated, assailed, mocked and ridiculed by the judge figure - ironically, almost always a woman or a person of color. The in-set audience cheers, hoots, hollers and frequently laughs at the absurd behavior of the people “on trial,” whom the television audience wants to see get ripped to shred by the guy or gal with the gavel. In the ‘90s, we were content with having the impoverished trotted out for our amusement; in the modern era, however, we not only want to ridicule them for their ways, but find a way to pass literal judgment on who they are as human beings. At the heart of the “judge” show is a sadist impulse - in essence, the desire to see another person not only suffer, but incur some sort of socially-backed penalty as a kicker.

Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mathis…all programs anchored around a charismatic, and frequently hostile, “authority figure,” whom not only doles out punitive damages, but perpetually chides those “on trial” for their ignorance, their incompetence, and the general pointlessness of their own lives. When Judge Alex calls the young black guy with the afro a “liar,” I imagine certain viewers feel something of a titillation, perhaps imagining themselves as the great “social judge” of character, quality and person that they all wished they could be. Whether or not these same shows also allow bigots, homophobes and misogynists the same venue to get their jollies is something that is up to the reader to determine - and deep down, I think we all know the answer here.

I suppose the big criticism would be this: how can a daytime TV subgenre be considered “sexist” or “racist” when so many figures of authority presented on such shows are women and black males? My riposte is a double-tipped one. First, I suppose it gives those aforementioned prejudiced viewers the ability to not only pass judgment on other people, but pass judgment on other people with the added incentive of having a person of color likewise denounce and ridicule that same person. It’s the racist equivalent of a cherry atop a sundae of hatred, I suppose. Additionally, such representations in media mask the reality of the nation’s real legal framework - that even now, an overwhelming majority of the nation’s judges and attorneys are, well, pretty damn white and male.

Perhaps that’s the big issue regarding all of these courtroom shows - it gives us a fantasized vision of the nation’s legal system, turning an overburdened and corruption-eaten reality into a form of cheap entertainment. We all laugh and snort when some dumb ass makes a verbal slip-up on “Judge Mathis,” and we laugh even harder when said judge gives him what-for in return. As a nation, we really seem to enjoy watching poor folk bicker and feud about small claims nonsense, but what happens when those same poor folk go out and steal a car, or break into a home, or start selling drugs to make a living?

Yeah, you don’t see those kinds of cases on daytime TV, because that breaks the illusion of American justice presented by all of these courtroom shows. We like to make fun of the uneducated and the downtrodden for caring about such trivial matters, because it gives us a sense of self-superiority. That was the primary drawing point for all of those talk shows in the ‘90s, and it remains the primary drawing point for all of the “judge” shows on TV today. But examining the real-world courtrooms - filled with incarcerated juveniles, illiterate twenty-somethings and youth neglected, abused and abandoned by social programs - is the kind of thing that doesn’t give us that smug sense of personal stature. Rather, it reminds us that, as a social system, we are all a little at fault in perpetuating cycles of violence, abuse and economic stagnation, and who wants to see that while sipping on their morning cup of Joe?

Daytime “judge” shows, however, give us the sort of idealized “justice system” we all wish we had in place. Final judgments - of both claims and character - are processed in less time than it takes to bake a pizza, by that unerring, charismatic authority figure that cracks jokes in between righting punitive wrongs. Never mind that even defendants are paid handsomely for their appearances on such programs, or that manufactured claims frequently end up on television, this is our fast food brand of justice, and we prefer it to that slow-cooking, icky-tasting real stuff.

You can say you’re not one of “everybody else,” but you are. Just compare the number of daytime TV judges you’re familiar with to the number of sitting Supreme Court Justices you can name, and you’ll realize everything I’m talking about.


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