Under the big top

Most people familiar with popular culture instinctively shy away from movies in which the star's name appears in the title. Therefore it's not surprising that the only person I could get to accompany me to Jerry Springer in Ringmaster was my father. A sensitive, poetry-loving soul mercifully unaware of daytime TV, my father had no idea what he was getting into.

Jerry Springer in Ringmaster

directed by Neil Abramson

now playing at TK

By the film's conclusion he was visibly stricken. Ever a strict adherent to the "at-least-now-I-know-what-a-proctology-exam-feels-like" school of thought, he nonetheless maintained a sturdy insistence that he was glad to have seen it. My father considers it an obligation to make periodic excursions through the swamps of fin-de-si裬e society, under the theory that though the research may be unpleasant, the data gathered makes it worthwhile. Judging by the attendance at the show I saw, his thinking is not shared by most Americans, the majority of whom are either already familiar with the findings, or prefer that they remain undiscovered. Assuming that for people just a little closer to the mainstream than my father, there aren't really any reasons to see Jerry Springer in Ringmaster, let's move on to the more intriguing discussion of the reasons it was made in the first place.

Reason no. 1 is clearly to make shitloads of money. But supplementing that are two competing explanations. Either Springer made a motion picture confessional in which he pleads guilty to his critics and comes clean with behind-the-scenes dirt, or he has created a feature-length defense of his talk-show. After a wishy-washy period in which the movie hints at both possibilities (unflattering portrayals of the show's snotty type-A producers vs. gratuitous Springer "what's-a-simple-talk-show-host-to-do" camera mugging), we get our answer.

At a climactic scene near the end, an appalled member of the fictionalized studio audience raises a ruckus. The man, like most of the people who appear on screen, is less a character than an archetype of the groups and forces that coalesce around the real-life talk show. He's clearly designed to represent the segment of the Springer universe known collectively as Moralistic Detractors. He's been preceded by Liberal Media Types, Jaded Producers, and of course, Groupies Who Flash Their Breasts in Cafes.

"These people are sinners, the scum of the earth," Moralistic Detractor shouts wildly. "They don't belong on TV."

Now I'll wager not one out of the multitude of Springer show critics has bolstered his argument with the assertion that poor people don't deserve to be on TV. Nonetheless, the character representing Jerry Springer (played less than convincingly by Jerry Springer) surges into an elegant defense of his guests' right to embarrass themselves before a national audience.

"They may not speak the King's English," retorts the impassioned host, "but you know what, they hurt just like you and me."

That's "you and I" to all you King's English speakers. But vernacular grammatical blundering aside, what Springer has done is clear. It's a time-honored diversionary tactic of people under criticism—ignore all the legitimate complaints and dismantle an easily refuted charge that no one has leveled. In the end Springer neither admits nor denies. He just continues to evade the question.

 
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