Perhaps only someone who has escaped seeing any of the so-called reality programs on television can have something good to say about them. Others are much too busy managing the double burden of denouncing them and watching them.
The attraction, Miss Manners has been told, is in observing other people humiliating themselves. Oh, well -- anything for a good time.
As everyone knows, whatever the premise such a show might have, its setup is designed to ensure that nearly all of the people involved expose their greed, romantic desperation and/or inability to cope. And heaven knows what they expose in the untelevised competitions to be allowed on the shows.
Miss Manners is therefore an unlikely candidate to point out that reality shows could be useful. She is, after all, in the business of helping people avoid causing embarrassment to themselves and others.
But mind you, these people are seeking out embarrassment. They are volunteers. One might say that in agreeing to the terms of these shows, they have taken care to not have any dignity left to lose. Of course it is rude to set traps, but when the traps are clearly marked, one can hardly stop people from marching determinedly into them.
Miss Manners can therefore spare herself cringing at their fate. But neither does she derive pleasurable relief from seeing others held up to public ridicule. It even shocks her when people seek to comfort those in trouble by saying, "You'll be happy to know that so-and-so has the same problem."
For those who do indulge in schadenfreude, these are good times. There are ample opportunities to see the rich ducking as they are led off to jail and the powerful squirming as they are questioned under oath. The heroes and heroines of storybook romances recount in detail how unhappily they lived ever after.
But amid the glee, people should be able to discern some primitive moral lessons. Such as, "Maybe it's not a good idea to embezzle, because you could get caught," and, "Lies that were clever enough to work for an extended time may trip you up long after you think you got away with them."
Reality shows provide similar lessons in manners for those who are able -- or directed -- to find them. Noticing how awful people look when they fail to clothe their normal but selfish desires with some decency, and how they inspire dislike and ridicule in others, should be useful.
Miss Manners has never held with those who believe that it is the responsibility of the entertainment industry to teach children etiquette by providing examples of perfect behavior. She especially dislikes it when parents, teachers and members of the clergy try to shift this important job of theirs over to athletes and actors.
Besides, not even Miss Manners would find it entertaining to watch drama that lacks conflict because everyone is behaving so well. But when television takes over the job of providing bad examples that the responsible can use as teaching tools, it knows what it is doing.
Dear Miss Manners:
Is the proper way to cut a friend egg using a knife and fork or just a fork? The knife seems like overkill to me.
Miss Manners is in the habit of tactfully correcting typing errors, but she couldn't bear to change "friend" to "fried." It sounds like such a pleasant way to start the day. Well, not knifing a friend, exactly, but being greeted by a friendly egg.
Even a hostile egg should not be attacked with a knife, however. Since the passing of the days when people did most of their eating with knives (fastidiously wiping off bloodstains left over from hunting first), it has been the rule to use knives as little as possible, certainly not with anything so pliant as an egg.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c)2003, Judith Martin