Last week, I ranted about the reality show Toddlers and Tiaras which can be found periodically on The Learning Channel. By the end of my rant, I came to the conclusion that shows like Toddlers and Tiaras make television worse today than it was a generation ago.
But then I remembered Queen for a Day which originated on radio and then was broadcast on NBC from 1956-1960, followed by another four years on ABC. The premise of this show was to have four contestants briefly describe a life problem that they were each dealing with, including a description of the prizes that they hoped to win to make their lives easier. Most contestants reported predicaments that had to do either with financial hardship or with the illness, disability, and/or death of family members. Jack Bailey, the show's incredibly glib and smarmy host, interviewed each contestant in a manner that was both patronizing and dismissive. And while the contestants were mostly middle aged women who, in spite of their best clothes and carefully curled hairdos , exuded an aura of sheer dowdiness, the prizes that were to be awarded each episode were paraded around the stage by a group of scantilly clad young models.
Using an "applause-o-meter" superinposed on the television screen to measure volume, the members of the studio audience showed their enthusiasm for each contestant by how loudly they clapped. Camera shots that panned the audience showed it to be made up of a group of well dressed women who were obviously out with their friends for lunch and an afternoon's entertainment. Even as a kid, I could tell that the scores indicated on the applause-o-meter didn't necessarily always correspond to what I perceived to be the loudness of the applause. In the value system of my youth (and as an adult too ) I thought that the needs of a sick or disabled child should have trumped just about any other problem a contestant could present and there were many times when I felt the person who was selected as queen was less deserving than some of the other candidates. I still remember the story told by a mother who was so poor that she could not afford a crib, explaining to Jack that she was forced to use one of her dresser drawers as a makeshift cradle for her baby. I also remember watching a special "wheelchair day" episode in which each of the contestants was - you guessed it - dependent on a wheelchair.
Each week, when the winner was selected, she was escorted by Bailey to sit on a cheesy looking throne where she was wrapped in an even cheesier looking velvet cape and simultaniously bestowed with an even yet cheesier looking crown as a large bouquet of red roses was placed in her lap. In addition to receiving the specific items she had requested, the winner was also presented with an array of appliances, kitchen ware and things like large capacity freezers and sewing machine consoles that the winner might neither have wanted nor had room for in her house. A night on the town or a weekend vacation were also often included as part of the winner's package, in spite of the fact that her situation (taking care of someone sick or disabled) might have made it impossible for her to go on these outings, adding an additional layer of both poignancy and cruelty to the proceedings. And assuming that these prizes were taxed as income, I can only imagine the kind of additional financial calamity that they brought down on these luckless women.
And at the end of the show, no one ever pointed out to the winners that when they woke up the next day, their lives were still going to suck, albeit maybe just a tiny bit less than the day before.
When you think about it, Toddlers and Tiaras is really only the retrograde inversion (it's a music term literally meaning backward and upside down) of Queen for a Day. On both shows, contestants trade their dignity for a chance to win a meaningless title along with money and some merchandise. Replace middle aged woman competing for sympathy with little girls competing with each other to be judged who is most adorable. And after winning the title of "grand ultimate supreme," no one points out to the young winners of Toddlers and Tiaras that when they wake up the next day, they too are still going to have lives that suck.
At least the winners on Toddlers and Tiaras get to keep their crowns, so maybe telvision isn't really any worse than it was a generation ago.
For those of you who remain curious, I submit for your viewing pleasure an episode of Queen for a Day
I know I've meandered away from the theme of crime fiction, but I promise I'll be back on topic next week.