Channel Surfing for Common Grace
Like it or not, reality TV is here to stay. That much became clear when television studios weathered the recent strike by Hollywood writers. Reality TV is cheap, and the ratings are strong. This bottom line ensures a long run, no matter what the critics write.
Two of the more successful reality shows have flickered the television in my home. When I'm not controlling the remote, my family's television lands on TLC's "What Not to Wear." Hosts Clinton Kelly and Stacy London alternately challenge and chastise women regarding their fashion faux pas. By the end of the hour, the project/woman invariably follows their fashion tips and reveals her new, more confident self amid cheering family and friends. The other popular show in my home is "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." It's a little too cheesy for my tastes, but then again, I'm not the target audience. And what a big audience it attracts "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is a top-ten ratings fixture. The combination of do-it-yourself audacity and pick-me-up stories can't miss.
As I talk with friends and family, I've learned that many other Christians watch these shows. I've seen no fewer than 20 churches advertise a sermon-series spin on the "Extreme Makoever" concept. Considering other reality TV alternatives, I can see why Christians prefer these shows. Listening to them, we hear faint echoes of the gospel.
Take "What Not to Wear" for example. The success of this show has little to do with fashion tips. Most viewers can't even afford the clothes they see on the show. So what's the point? Even as the hosts berate poor women for their questionable wardrobes, Clinton and Stacy recognize that outward appearances often reflect inward realities. By the middle of the show, the subjects usually begin to see that they don't dress well because they don't value themselves. But they want to change. They want to feel beautiful, inside and out. Every episode ends with redemption not the Christian kind, but a fashion facsimile.
In previous seasons of "What Not to Wear," this redemption was a minor, if obvious theme. Episodes formerly began with funny videos of the fashion offenders. Not in 2008. Now Clinton and Stacy sit down for a teary heart-to-heart with their next project. There is theology here. If you look inside yourself, you will find a unique inner beauty waiting to burst onto the world scene. Fashion is the bridge that will take you from where you are to where you want to be. That is the not-so-subtle message of "What Not to Wear."
"Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is a very different show, but you hear gospel echoes here as well. This show organizes entire communities to work together and care for a down-and-out family by building them a dream home. These refreshing acts of selfless community spirit encourage the audience. This is how we want to see the body of Christ work together toward a shared goal of serving the common good. And think about the family. They have just about given up on the world. But just then, someone showers them with undeserved riches. How can they respond, except with effusive gratitude?
But if viewers hear the gospel's echoes, do they know where the sound originates? Elements of these shows unfortunately dampen the gospel refrain. First, there are unintended consequences. Christians must recognize how these shows pay their bills. Each show leverages the viewer's good will for good ratings, which pleases the corporate sponsors. These home-improvement stores and clothing retailers want to breed dissatisfaction with our own homes and wardrobes. So the good will we feel while watching the shows can become discontent with what God has given us.