I confess to being a regular watcher of Judge Judy. For those who live on another planet and have never seen the show, IMDb describes it thus: "Judge Judy Sheindlin, a former judge from New York, tackles actual, small claims cases with her no-nonsense attitude in which damages of no more than $5,000 can be awarded.... After a case is closed, the defendant and plaintiff briefly confront each other outside the court-room."
Judge Judy is an example of what is called "reality TV". At the top of each show, we are told that "The people are real. The cases are real. The judgments are final!" I often paraphrase the first two sentences to "The people are stupid. The cases are stupid." The first sentence can also be changed to "The people are fat!" and be equally true.
Judge Judy, you see, stars average Americans -- the kind of fat, stupid people you see on the news or in a Michael Moore documentary. These fat stupid people do stupid things, as Judge Judy reminds them with her acid put-downs. So why do I watch these over-the-back-fence arguments about dog fights, accidents caused by unlicensed drivers driving cars with no insurance, and gifts to ex-lovers which the giver later claims were loans? Is it like the prurient curiosity we have passing by a car accident or a drunk passed out in the gutter? Why do I not avert my eyes?
Last night the explanation for my fascination was given to me by Lee Siegel, a Jewish, liberal, New Yorker who writes criticism and essays on culture for Harper's, The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly. How strange that someone totally unlike me, writing in publications I never read, should understand my motivation so well! Here's what Mr. Siegel says in an an essay called "UFOs".
There is [in Americans a] surging love for the absurd, and therefore contemptible, person. From politics to reality shows, we seem to like to be surrounded by people ruleed by greed, hampered by stupidity, blinkered by obsession. These sad, bored [people], their faces blank, their landlocked figures full-sail with heartland obesity...--these people are easy to laugh at, and therefore easy to accommodate.
In America, attention must be paid! Attention, that is, to everything freakish, inadequate, unthreatening, and thus usefully supportive perhaps of a shaky sense of worth, of identity. More and more, the spectacle of human inadequacy on television is like one long public stoning.
Exactly. Watching these obese, doltish and poor people makes us feel better about ourselves. We are better than they. OK... I confess... I am better than they. And I feel good about it. How about you?
Further reading: "UFOs" is the 39th chapter in a collection of Lee Siegel's essays published by Basic Books in 2007 as Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television. The book has not aged well. The first four sections ("Cops", "Sitcoms", "Comedy", and "Cartoons") critique shows which (as Garrison Keillor would say) are no longer with us. I would add, "and a good thing too." The sections on race, religion, war, news and documentaries are still relevant and worth reading.