Myths. Legends. Fairy tales. Fables. Every culture in every era finds a way to express our human need to tell stories about ourselves. We rely on these stories to teach us why we do the things we do, to test the limits of our experience, and to reaffirm truths about human nature.

Reality TV, with its bevy of "real housewives," super-size families, and toddler beauty pageants, seems an unlikely place to find such truths, much less examples of virtue. And yet when you move beyond the visual excess and hyperbole, you will find the makings of classic morality tales. Bad characters come to disastrous ends. People struggle with unexpected hardship and either triumph or fail, depending on their strength of character. For some, hard work pays off. For others, failure is swift and cruel.

One could argue that reality TV started with The Dating Game. With "real people" and occasional celebrity appearances, the show reflected much about the state of romantic relationships and the relationship of ordinary people to celebrities. In a 1972 episode, a 14-year-old Michael Jackson was the bachelor. The three polite teen girls kept their answers short; no one spoke out of turn. When Jackson asked one girl to describe what she thought it would be like to share a kiss, she smiled sweetly and said, "Lovely."

It's hard to imagine this scene repeated today with Usher, the Jonas Brothers, or Justin Bieber—not because there are no sweet, innocent girls left, but because our relationships are filtered through the prism of popular culture. The girls courted by Jackson were behaving the way they were taught. Today, the girls would likely adopt a persona to better suit our more revealing and consciously therapeutic times. One-word answers would be ...

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