It was quite a week in television.
On one hand, there was a grown man making a spectacle of himself oversharing on national TV with a host of eager and telegenic figures happy to help walk him through it, producing a cringe-inducing series of conversations viewers watched in a fixated mix of horror and bewilderment. On the other hand, there was the “Bachelor” finale.
Within 24 hours of programming this week, the Sam Nunberg debacle took over cable news content and “The Bachelor” finale took over broadcast. Like cannonballs in the cultural pool, they consumed social media for a day and a half with gifs, gawking, gossip, and a reckoning with our society’s “Gladiator”-like addiction to these emotionally awkward and/or exploitative displays.
ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED, was the taunt running through my brain as I read up on the two cultural events.
Let’s start with Nunberg. He’s a longtime, sometime Trump aide who had been with Trump since the earliest days of his then-hypothetical presidential runs. In a twist that perhaps portended the dramatic TV event in which his career and infamy would culminate, Nunberg first met Trump at a Wrestlemania event as a child, getting on camera with the Bushwhacker. He’d been fired by Trump several times, but because of his association with the Trump team, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is looking for an interview with him, as he is so many Trump associates.
Well, if Mueller doesn’t get one, plenty of other people did. Nunberg started a manic media tour with a Washington Post interview, and then on to Katy Tur’s MSNBC show in the early afternoon, declaring among other things that Mueller should arrest him because he certainly wasn’t going to spend hours producing emails to comply with a subpoena, that Trump “might have done something during the election,” and he had an awesome idea to have “Bill Clinton’s illegitimate black child there at the second debate.”
“Why do I have to spend 80 hours going over my emails?” Nunberg said. “What does Bob Mueller need to see my emails, when I send Steve and Roger clips and we talk about how we hate people? […] I’m not gonna spend 80 hours because a bunch of FBI agents and a bunch of US attorneys want … to harass me!
“I think it would be funny if they arrested me,” he continued. “I think it would be REALLY REALLY funny if they arrest me…I’m not gonna go to jail! He’s not gonna do anything!”
The interview was greeted with a flood of WTFs and OMGs and “I can’t evens,” described as bonkers, with many openly questioning the subject’s mental state. He went on to call several more shows on CNN, where he dubbed Trump an “idiot” declared his loathing for Corey Lewandowski, and asked anchors their advice on whether he should comply with a subpoena. He then appeared on set for Erin Burnett’s “Out Front,” where she said she smelled alcohol on his breath, prompting our CNN colleague Brian Stelter to ask in his media newsletter “If your source seems drunk or drugged or just plain out of his mind, what is your responsibility?”
By the end of the day, it felt like many who had witnessed the Nunberg meltdown were asking themselves, “What did we just see and should we have seen it?”
That night, not to be outdone by the spectacle of an evermore outrageous news cycle, “The Bachelor” aired unedited, emotionally wrenching footage of a nice Midwestern engaged woman being ambushed by her fiancé with a camera crew and told he wanted to try getting with the runner-up.
The finale was met with a flood of WTFs and OMGs and “I can’t evens,” described as brutal, with many openly questioning whether viewers should be seeing contestants in this emotional state.
It may actually have been the “most dramatic finale ever,” the oft-proffered but rarely delivered upon promise of every “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” episode. But not for a very good reason. The “Bachelor,” Arie Luyendyk, managed to break two women’s hearts in grotesque and public fashion, rejecting Lauren and proposing to Becca before then deciding to break up with Becca to get a re-do with Lauren. What followed was footage that made even “Bachelor” nation squirm, which is saying something, considering this nation (of which I am an occasional member) watches specifically for cringe-inducing emotionally awkward entertainment exploiting the feelings of pretty people who agreed to be filmed doing just this.
The Washington Post reported: “The whole scene was very upsetting to watch, as Becca started out thinking she was spending a romantic weekend with her fiance — and then ended up wracked with sobs as the cameras eagerly captured every moment of their surprise breakup. It was all spliced together with shots from a live special hosted by Harrison, who repeatedly gushed to the audience that it was ‘the first uncut, unedited scene in reality TV history.’”
“To say this is trending and blowing up social media right now is a gross understatement,” Harrison exclaimed.
This was true — partly because many viewers were furious with ABC for airing the footage that showed Becca in so much pain. (As she cried, she repeatedly tried to get Arie to leave, and he refused.)
And, that’s the thing about all of this programming, which feels ever more similar every day, no matter the format. Whether the audience is excited, angry or ambivalent, the audience is there for it. But should we be?
Nunberg’s friends were telling media he might be intoxicated and need help.
“I asked him three times, whether he was sure and is he of sound mind to do this. He told me he was drinking,” Gasparino added. “I just watched him on MSNBC and CNN and the man needs help.”
The first-ever Bachelorette and other former cast members tweeted critically about the “Bachelor” finale:
Becca then had to sit for at least two hours more of live programming with the man who broke her heart and the woman he had moved on to. Despite protest about the finale, the ratings from finale to the “After the Rose” special held steady.
By Wednesday, Becca had been named the new “Bachelorette,” earning a chance to inflict her own brand of public heartbreak on 20+ more people, and Nunberg had decided he’d cooperate with Mueller after all. Because he was so incoherent and possibly intoxicated in interviews, any possible news nuggets he dropped were quickly discarded.
Pope Francis has used the term “throwaway culture” to apply an old critique of consumerism to how our society treats human beings as well.
“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throwaway’ culture which is now spreading,” he said in 2014.
It felt very much like Becca and Sam Nunberg were the fuel for the throwaway news and entertainment cycle this week. By midweek, there seemed to be a social-media-wide feeling of regret over the hay made over both these uncomfortable displays. I read about both events but never watched them because just reading about them made me wonder, as Stelter did, about my role and responsibility in this as a consumer and producer of media.
These cannonballs did indeed “blow up social media,” but at what cost?