The Sad Truth of Reality-Show 'Miracles'

By Jennie Yabroff

The rest of the world may have moved on to adorable, dimpled 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi, but it's hard not to keep watching clips of Susan Boyle's performance last week on "Britain's Got Talent." Jafargholi's performance is not without its drama, but from the outset, the judges, the hosts and the audience are on his side, so his triumph is not entirely surprising. Boyle's success, though, is nothing short of a miracle. Or so we are supposed to believe. As judge Amanda Holden tells Boyle, she is "so thrilled, because I knew everyone was against you." Then she says that we've all learned a lesson about cynicism.

To suggest, as some commentators have, that the judges on "Britain's Got Talent" were not quite as shocked (shocked!) by Susan's performance as they professed to be—Piers Morgan claimed it was "the biggest surprise I've had in three years on the show"—is not cynical. It would be naïve to believe otherwise. (Similarly, critics have pointed out that Simon Cowell's suggestion that Jafargholi try a different song may not have been a complete ambush; the producers conveniently had the music to his second choice, Michael Jackson's "Who's Loving You," queued up in the CD player.)

Gone are the days when we expected any fidelity to truth from our reality TV. In 2007, when Cowell was busted for re-shooting reaction shots to a plot development on his show "The X Factor," it barely made a ripple. What makes the Susan Boyle episode different, though, is that the entire emotional freight of the experience, the catharsis of her performance, relies on its unexpectedness. Sure, she has a nice voice—lots of people have nice voices. But "Britain's Got Talent" isn't selling Boyle just as a singer. The show is selling her as a miracle, and to manipulate the audience to expect a miracle and then chastise us, as Holden does, for our expectations, is worse than cynical. It's bad faith.

The thing about miracles is that you can't gin them up on demand. What's so offensive about shows like "Britain's Got Talent" is that they don't even allow us to have an original experience, even one as straightforward as admiring Boyle's performance. They exploit the audience's hunger for a genuinely moving emotional event, but then don't trust us enough to recognize a "miracle" on our own, so they stage-manage our expectations from the outset.

Is Susan Boyle frumpy and maybe a bit odd? Sure. Would we be, in Piers' words, "reeling from shock" at the revelation that, despite her looks, she has a decent singing voice (as though the two are somehow related)? Probably not, unless we were primed to expect otherwise. The sad thing is, this sort of manipulation works, temporarily—there's no denying the thrill you feel when Susan sings the opening notes and the audience jumps to its feet. But it's a hollow catharsis: prefab and pre-paid-for, an elaborate edifice with nothing inside. And that's probably why it's been so easy for us to move on to the charms of Jafargholi, and why it will be easy to dump him in a week or two for the next "miracle" to take the stage.