I grew up during the Stone Age, when there were three television networks, and after ten at night, (I think, because I was in bed by then) all you could watch was a test pattern. TV was in black and white, low definition. I loved Captain Kangaroo, and thought Romper Room must have been for idiots.
This was during the heyday of the quiz show. Good grief, I remember Johnny Carson as a mere stripling, hosting “Who Do You Trust.” And Bob Barker when his hair was naturally brown. If you wanted to see a show, you had to be home, because there weren’t recording devices. The family gathered around the set. We watched the Nelson family, the Andersons (father didn’t really know best), and the Cleavers. My mother must have felt really guilty that she didn’t wear a dress and high heels to clean the toilets.
I could write all day about how guilty my mother must have felt, because she never made cakes for dessert, and the dining room was for company only. The Cleavers ate in the dining room every night, with candles. And June whipped up apple pies and frosted cakes in three inch heels and a cocktail apron. Housewives of America must have felt pretty shoddy in comparison. But they probably dismissed June as a fantasy. She didn’t exist in our neighborhood!
What did exist was the downtrodden and depressed housewife, who spent long days in the home, with no outside stimulation, ironing, dusting, making beds, and scrubbing floors. It had to have been a very limiting and life-sucking life for many women.
And there was a show just for them. “Queen for a Day” was on in the afternoons, and it was the kind of show that made me feel the way I do when I pass an accident on the highway—I don’t want to look, but I can’t seem to turn away. “Queen” had as contestants real women. Real, horrible, sad, depressed women. The purpose of the show each day was to choose the most awful woman of the day, based on her testimony, and gift her with something to make her life worth living—like a new washing machine or vacuum cleaner.
Each woman was given a short time frame to tell her story. Good God, the stories! I remember tears, along with tales of not enough money, dead spouses, having to live in basement apartments with no heat, sick children whose diagnoses were dire, evictions, and evil mothers-in-law.
This was, for some reason, a very popular show. I remember the host, Jack Bailey, egging the women on—the more tears and suffering, the better! They used some sort of “tragedy meter” to pick the sorriest woman that day, and she got to be the “Queen!” They put her in a beauty queen banner, and I suppose in addition to the new washer, she got to go out to lunch and dinner and eat lobster.
This was reality. We ate it up! But like all things, it grew old. We heard the same sob stories day after day. The shine wore off. We fell in love with Matt Dillon, Andy Griffith, and those poor women who so wanted to be Queens were all but forgotten.
Then, somewhere in the nineties, Jeff Probst and all the others must have remembered how much Americans love to see other people suffer, and reality television was born. It is a little sexier now, with people having to eat bugs, wear bathing suits and live on tropical islands in tribes. But we also have the shows about folks who eat chalk and hoard garbage. I am sure there is a reality show out there about people who have chronic diarrhea.
It makes me wish for the good old days, when all you had to do to be a reality star was tell the world about your battles with the landlord and your kid’s chronic eczema. Ah, the world was a more innocent place back then.
The good old days. Let’s bring them back?