NPR logo Fake Jail, Real Money: The Similarities Between Wealth And Confinement

Television

Fake Jail, Real Money: The Similarities Between Wealth And Confinement

Kristen was one of this year's Big Brother contestants, but she's gone now. Probably for her own good. Monty Brinton/CBS hide caption

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Monty Brinton/CBS

Now and then, even the really stupid things have their curious little lessons.

Let us begin with the sprayed and teased utter freak show that is The Real Housewives Of [Various Places], the New Jersey iteration of which wraps up its season tonight. ("Fortunately," the D.C. version remains in full swing.)

Compare it to the sunburnt and unkempt utter freak show that is Big Brother, which is currently slogging through another season in which an unappealing crowd of witless dolts is narrowed down until only one witless dolt remains to claim his or her large cash prize.

One of these time-gobbling summer franchises features rich people who can go anywhere (including, hello, The White House); one features mostly semi-employed actor wannabes who are locked in a fake house for months with no contact with the outside world and can't even have a magazine. One has a stilted competition format full of fake rituals and nominations and competitions; one is supposedly just following rich people around while they live their glamorous lives with their uncomfortable husbands and uncomfortably roped-in children. One relies on a group of strangers; one relies on a group of people who theoretically know each other.

And yet, in every important way, they're exactly the same show.*

Why? Because wealth and confinement function exactly the same way on these two shows, acting as a sort of lifestyle sensory deprivation chamber that seems to lead to the pettiest and most enduring grudges on television.

If you've never watched anything Real Housewives-related (and really, good for you), let me sum up most of the plotlines in the show's history: Someone Wants An Apology. Somebody did something to somebody else, and the somebody else just can't believe it, and they spend all of their time telling everyone to whom they speak that the lack of an apology is consuming their every thought to the point where they can barely sit through a mani-pedi without twitching. Usually there is a fashion show involved. (And yes, some of it is staged. At the same time, I am entirely convinced most of those who go to war absolutely do hate each other.)

Meanwhile, Big Brother features a ridiculous amount of crying and emotional superreacting, which has recently included a couple who decided they were soulmates after about four days of making out, and then a guy who lay on a hammock (I think it was a hammock; I cannot bear to fact-check whether it was actually the chaise) crying to himself, all the while telling himself that it was, after all, only Big Brother — a point somewhat undermined by his position lying in the hammock/chaise, crying.

At some point this summer, it all became clear: the rest of us are saved from becoming these people in part by the fact that we have to get up every day and do stuff.

I, personally, don't have a lot of time to nurse grudges against my friends, because of rent-paying and grocery-shopping obligations. I mean, I doubt I would anyway, but who would have the energy? Who would babysit my friends' kids if they went to war with me? Who would drive me to the airport if I went to war with them? Getting over grudges is utilitarian. Being somewhat judicious in your choice of things to get incredibly upset about is the only way you're going to have enough time left over to make dinner.

The only people who have the room to carry their grievances in their pockets all the time are the people whose pockets are otherwise empty, figuratively speaking.

And so, in order to produce this level of foolishness this reliably, you pretty much have to start with people whose need to prioritize has been suspended. They either have to have no options or too many options — nothing to do because they aren't allowed, or nothing to do because they don't have to. Whether they're idled by money or idled by being locked on a soundstage, being idled makes the right people (or maybe the wrong people) behave very, very similarly. It stills their minds too much, it isolates them, it stops them from interrupting their own little drama parades the way they should.

This is why you get drama on Survivor, but less of it. On that show, you actually do have to make a fire and get food and so forth. Yes, there's fighting, but it's not the only thing people do all day, and occasionally, people get over things. It's the same thing on The Amazing Race — you're buying plane tickets, you're trying to find where Norsensoogenwaagen STREET is, as opposed to Norsensoogenwaagen ROAD (yes, I made those up), and with relatively rare exceptions, your distractions keep you at least a little bit occupied.

See also: Top Chef and Project Runway — there are certainly interpersonal stories, but they're not so ceaseless. Give people even a couple of things they actually have to do, and they won't spend all their time lying on hammocks and crying — or running around country clubs crying.

So as you pay your bills and cook your dinner and take your cat to the vet, take a moment and thank your life for containing at least a few small challenges you have to meet on a given day. Your unrelenting routine may be one of your weapons against becoming kind of a horrible person.

*Importance is relative.