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August 30, 2005:

Extreme Lawsuit or What Makes Us Tune In Anyway
by Kevan Breitinger

The headline grabbed my attention for a few reasons, not the least being the second word: “Five Orphans From Home Makeover Sue Show.” The word orphan has immediate power to arouse compassion. The fact that they were suing someone, especially a TV show, provoked my curiosity.

ABC’s Extreme Makeover is, of course, the wildly successful reality television show getting a lot of attention for its power to tug on our national heartstrings. The show selects a deserving family each week that is down on its luck for a variety of reasons and builds them a new or improved home to accommodate their special needs. The show has struck a spiritual chord in our collective consciousness, reducing grown men with power tools to tears, and in significant numbers, too. Now comes the sad news of complications for the phenomenon, news that typifies some of our struggles and questions about how to live lives of kindness and generosity in a very cynical age.

Last winter, following the death of their parents within three months of each other, the Higgins kids were taken in by neighbors Phil and Loki Leomiti. According to the website of the builders, the five kids were invited into the Leomiti’s small 3-bedroom rancher because the couple “knew in their hearts what they had to do.” The blended family of 11 lived in their 1269-square-foot home until they were chosen by ABC, which then built them a 9-bedroom mansion and arranged for the participants to receive cars, groceries, computers, stereos, and other gifts. The builders, the Pardee Company, even went so far as to pay off the mortgage. So far the story is a warm picture of community benevolence, right?

But the Higgins clan now claims that the producers took advantage of their hard-luck story to persuade them to participate in order to get high ratings. They likewise question the motives of the Leomitis, and claim they instigated an “orchestrated campaign” to oust them immediately after the airing of the segment, a campaign that included physical abuse and racial insults. They are suing the network, the builders and the Leomitis, who have appropriated the cars, the gifts, and of course, the house.

As can be expected and even understood, the various parties involved in the suit are all expressing innocence. Patrick Mesisca, lawyer for the Higgins children, says “What we’re seeing is the collision between reality TV and the perception reality TV seeks to create in the minds of the general public.”

Umm . . . isn’t that called actual reality? Maybe that’s the next generation of reality TV: shows that cover the gap between television’s manipulated circumstances and the honest reactions of those who have been hopeful or foolish enough to play a role in them.

Of course the saddest part of the whole ludicrous mess is that it is entirely possible that the Leomitis may have used the Higgins’ tragedy to obtain a free 9-bedroom mansion. It is equally possible that the Higgins siblings are angry and bitter and willing to blame anyone and everyone for their condition. And it’s hard to come up with sympathy for the corporation that ultimately seeks advertising dollars above all else, but they never claimed to be anything else, right?

We’re the ones who had our hankies out at the first mention of orphans. We willingly suspend disbelief when presented with conditions painstakingly calculated to tug at our heartstrings hard enough to force our wallets open. The irony is that it was the kindness exhibited in Extreme Makeover that we found so moving to begin with, maybe because of its infrequency today.

As cynical and hardened as our culture may seem to be, there obviously lies beneath the surface a deep yearning for goodness, a heart that swiftly leaps at its appearance. It explains the unexpected success of those similar television shows over the years, Little House on the Prairie, Touched by an Angel, and the recent Joan of Arcadia. And it should encourage those of us who believe that meaningful morality through knowing God, the very Source of all goodness, is not an impossible dream, but a very accessible possibility—even in this challenging day.

This hunger we see demonstrated so openly in the popularity of these high concept television shows is really an unrecognized hunger for God. Let’s take all the encouragement we can find from this phenomenon and look for more opportunities to tap into that rich thread of unidentified desire that runs though the heart of culture. We are surely capable of showing as much or greater kindness as a broadcasting corporation. Now that’s a reality I can get excited about!

Kevan Breitinger is a freelance writer from Ocean City, New Jersey.

Copyright ©2005
Kevan Breitinger


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