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Why we watch that feel-bad TV

2009-07-10 14:04
I polled the office to find out.
"I hate that programme!" gossip addict Sam Brighton tells me. "Every week, they go and they show you bunch of ugly stuff that costs a lot of money and..."
"Or they show you this place that makes you feel bad about your own house," Soraya interjects.
Ulpha's nodding: "They filmed Danny K's place, and it's so cold, but it's huge. It's like..."
"My whole freakin' house could fit into the kitchen," Soraya says.
"But you watch it very week?"  I ask.

After a slight pause, punctuated by mumbling sounds, everyone nods, shrugging.  Turns out they also all watch the marginally more quirky Afrikaans counterpart, Pasella (same crew, different faces), whose tired topics are apparently decided by a weekly word association game as in "Oranje? Isn't there a town with that name? Does anyone there have a fancy house? No? Can we build one?"

I have never had trouble understanding Schadenfreude – you know, the sense of "I told you so", of guilty pleasure in vengeance, which you get when the downfall of your enemies proves to you that your lame life isn't so bad after all. It's the same feeling you get when you run into the guy who rejected you at school, and he's twice-divorced and working as a barman at a run-down steakhouse. Or when the failure of an echo-chamber's expensive vanity project at work results in their long-overdue retrenchment. Though blended with pity and sympathy, Schadenfreude is never 100% unpleasant.

But why (in the name of God as you understand the word) do we put ourselves through  the torture of staring at things we cannot ever have? You see it all the time: A group of men in overalls standing looking into the brightly lit windows of a sports car store, an obsessed lover texting someone who's never going to reply, or me, dreaming of John Mayer...

That's the thing about our consumer culture. It continually lets us look at the things we cannot have. It brings us right up close, so we can virtually touch the object of desire. We're seduced as we stare at the supercar of the super-rich, test drive it with Top Gear, wander through a mansion fixating on Jeannie D's ever-perfecting body, or imagine ourselves deep in conversation with a musician whose lyrics are so intimate we really feel we know how they tick. It's about illusion.

Or am I too cynical here? Isn't fantasy also about having hope; about daring to dream, to credit the cliche?

The problem is that real dreams need to be about more than showing how much money you have to throw around. Real dreams (however wild) make good stories. Like love, dreams cannot be purchased. Real dreams are much more interesting than what Jeannie D is wearing (or saying).  Real dreams and real glamour is within everyone's reach if we only look for it. But a R5000 vase isn't really worth more than the one you discover in a junk shop, just like a supermodel isn't necessarily any better in bed than the girl next door you grew up with. 

This effectively makes shows like Top Billing, which glamorise wealth for its own sake no more than Consumer-culture pornography - except with slightly lower production values than the average porno, and no real potential for generating any long term revenue through DVD sales.

This won't stop me standing entranced, polishing my plastic kettle with my eyes closed, imagining myself in a palatial kitchen with a talking fridge, and a surround sound stereo playing my lover's latest CD.

But it's not going to happen in real life. Or... is it?

Sometimes, dreams do come true. I'm flying up to Jozi this weekend, to ride back to Cape Town in a luxury limo with a glass of bubbly in my hand and my iPod playing all my favourite songs for the road. Who needs Route 66 (the original fantasy) when I have this fantastic reality?

To help you control your personal spending in real life, we also put together some hints and tips from top celebs. Find out how to cut back on private jets, and survive without wearing a different outfit every day. It's the stuff life-lessons are made of.

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