recent suicide of onetime Bachelorette contestant Julien Hug – a 35-year-old who vied for Jillian Harris’ affection in the summer 2009 season – has sparked another round of “who’s to blame?” media speculation. The Today show chronicled Hug’s death, as well as that of Storm Chasers’ Matthew Hughes, in a segment this morning that wondered whether reality TV drives contestants to tragic ends:The
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There’s no doubt these are devastatingly sad stories. But it’s hard to know who – or what – to blame for such tragedies. There are so many reality shows these days that, just statistically, some contestants will suffer from debilitating depression that drives them to such extreme measures. However, the fact that some of those shows specifically attract and/or seek out the kind of unstable person who keeps things unpredictable on screen only increases the chances that those folks will have trouble adjusting back to real life after “reality” ends. And the fleeting-fame cycle that accompanies reality stardom, even when that “fame” is minimal, is bound to accelerate any tendency toward depression.
The question then becomes: Can we assign any blame to those who produce these shows when one of their former contestants meets a tragic end? It’s hard to say. Surely we can call for more mindful judgment during the selection process – if someone seems unfit to handle the sudden mass attention that could at any time turn to public mockery or, worse, total indifference, we can hope (however naive that hope is) that producers pass on that person instead of rushing to put his or her greatest weaknesses under a spotlight. But we also can’t realistically expect a pre-screening test that could detect depression or anxiety in order to weed out everyone with the slightest psychological issue. One wonders if any willing candidates would be left after such a process.
As for whether producers should provide more extensive post-show counseling to each and every contestant, that seems a lofty – and prohibitively expensive – pipe dream. A happy one, to be sure: Hollywood would suddenly be full of well-adjusted stars. Reality programs would be so expensive to make that only money-minting juggernauts like American Idol would survive. And gossip tabloids would fold without a thing to write about.
And that, in short, is exactly why it will never happen.