THE DOCUSERIES “Cultureshock”
WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Mondays, A&E
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Monday’s episode of this eight-part docuseries from Morgan Spurlock (“Supersize Me”) and Entertainment Weekly is about the trash TV phenomenon of the ’90s. It covers the rise — with Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael, Maury Povich — and ultimately the fall (Jerry Springer). A&E describes this series as a look “at the untold stories behind watershed moments in pop culture that have had a lasting impact on our culture.” Next week’s episode looks at Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s 1999 cult hit, “Freaks and Geeks.”
MY SAY “The Jerry Springer Show” stopped production last month, which no doubt prompted a national outpouring of “What?! That was still in production?” But yes indeed: After 4,000 episodes, considerably more broken chairs, an opera named for the ringmaster and an entire genre inspired by its indelible example, “The Jerry Springer Show” had ended. (Indelible, but also perhaps inexpungible: There’s always the possibility this will be revived, too; don’t get your hopes up.)
After all these years — nearly 25 of ‘em — it’s nice to know some things haven’t changed. The AP recently collected a sampling of Springer’s final show topics, coming up with this partial list: “Stripper Sex Turned Me Straight,” ‘’Stop Pimpin’ My Twin Sister,” ‘’My Bestie Is Stalkin’ You,” ‘’Hooking Up With My Therapist” and “Babes With Baguettes.”
“Springer” long ago lost the ability to shock, or even appall, perhaps because a third of those 4,000 episodes probably had something to do with “stripper sex.” But its influence was vast, and “Cultureshock” efficiently reminds viewers of that.
“Springer” set off that lowest-common-denominator arms race that rocked daytime TV and then the rest of the culture back in the ’90s. For that reason, Springer is the star attraction — or star defendant — in this hour. In an interview, he dusts off the alibi he used countless times back in the day: “There’s nothing on our show that was not already in the Bible, already in Shakespeare, or already in great literature.”
You’ll chuckle as you listen, and maybe stifle an urge to respond, “But Jerry, Richard III said, ‘My kingdom for a horse,’ not ‘My kingdom for a horse to marry.’ “ (The 1998 episode “I Married a Horse” was among the most viewed in “Springer” history, surpassing 1997’s “I Broke the World’s Sex Record.”)
“Cultureshock” does a good job of exploring the Springer antecedents and the fallout. But Spurlock also argues that trash TV led directly to the reality (or unscripted) boom, which spawned Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” Richard Dominick, “Springer’s” longtime producer, thus quips: “Not only did we ruin talk shows [but] we were also responsible for creating reality TV, which then ruined television and then the country.”
In fact, there’s lots of blame to go around. MTV’s “The Real World” — the first modern “reality” series — launched in ’92 at the outset of the trash TV boom. Game shows of the 1970s such as “The Dating Game” and “The Gong Show” more directly influenced the reality “competition” series. If Dominick wants to blame someone besides himself for the current state of the country, he could go back to Chuck Barris.
Trash TV was — and is — simply an evolutionary dead end. YouTube and the rest of the internet took over the job of shoveling the trash. Moreover, the legacy of the genre was complicated, as “Cultureshock” notes. Some of the old stuff was awful, maybe most of it was, and at its most loathsome, wantonly exploited those most easily exploited. But Springer and other supporters have a point, too: This often gave a forum to real people with real problems, including transgender people who otherwise had no national visibility or forum. These shows’ motives were hardly humanitarian, despite the revisionist claims made here, but something was better than nothing.
BOTTOM LINE Decent overview of trash TV, but the history and legacy are oversimplified.
(A&E said Spurlock left the show after he folded his production company and that this hour was produced by Joshua Levine.)