Not welcome: <I>Neighborhood </I>should have aired
Let me get this straight: A reality TV show exposing prejudice is killed after liberal groups fighting prejudice pre-judge the show as bigoted.
How ironic. How Hollywood.
I am, of course, referring to the defunct Welcome to the Neighborhood. In case you haven't heard, the show was taped in Circle C Ranch, a lily-white, middle-upper class suburb of Austin, Texas. The reality show featured three white, conservative, Christian families who were given the opportunity to pick their new neighbor. Of seven competing families, the one whom the Circle C families picked received a new, 3,300-square-foot house in Circle C.
Vying for the house were an Asian family, a black family, and a Hispanic family; a young, heavily tattooed white couple; a white, Wiccan family; a gay couple who had adopted a black child; and a white family with a secret that had something to do with the wife/mother's double-D sized bra cup.
The six-episode show was due to premiere July 10, but, after the network heavily promoted the show, some liberal groups attacked it as racist and bigoted, while right-wing groups expressed concern that the show ridiculed conservatives Christians.
ABC announced in late June that it had pulled the show. According to CNN, ABC said that "given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes we have decided not to air the series at this time."
Most vocal among the show's critics was the National Fair Housing Alliance. Alliance spokeswoman Shanna Smith, told Variety in a June 29 article: "I think ABC's intent was to try and depict bigotry and tolerance and that people can transform, but they did so at the expense of people of color, humiliating them to show that white people can change."
She's wrong. Smith has never seen the entire show. I did, and I'm here to tell Smith that her misconceptions helped ax a show that championed the kind of change she's working toward.
On July 23, ABC screened the show in its entirety during an invitation-only event for Circle C residents. It was the first time that anyone outside of the production had seen all six episodes. I was lucky enough to attend the screening.
I won't reveal the ending in case the show ever sees the light of Prime Time, but I will tell you this: No people of color were humiliated. On the contrary, the white Circle C residents are the ones who end up looking ridiculous. And yes, some "white people" did change– along with their potential neighbors– and it's a beautiful thing to watch.
Proponents of diversity tell us that if people of different races, cultures, and lifestyles would only get to know each other, we would all just get along. If our schools and neighborhoods were truly integrated, if our workplaces, governments, and social institutions were truly diverse, prejudice and bigotry would melt away.
Welcome to the Neighborhood proves the diversity-fosters-tolerance theory so swiftly and dramatically that the folks doing the changing are blindsided by their own transformation.
Example: At the beginning of the show, one Circle C resident, self-dubbed "the governor," declares unabashedly, "I will not tolerate a homosexual couple coming into this neighborhood." By the end of the show, the burly governor teeters on the brink of tears as he announces that he has "decided to stop judging" the gay couple. In a later episode, a black contestant tells the camera, "This experience has taught me you can't judge a book by its cover. Everyone is not out to get you, and everyone is not against you because you're black."
It couldn't have been scripted so well
Granted, the show could have been a disaster. (The show's creators are either prophetic observers of human nature or really lucky.) It could have disintegrated into a circus of diverse families battling to out-WASP each other. Instead, the contestants stand their ground. When questioned about their lifestyle, the gay couple declares that "free is too high a price" to pay for a house if they have to hide who they are.
It's a shame these moments may never be shared with America's TV audience, because Welcome to the Neighborhood is the best reality TV show yet. That's not saying much, I concede, when the current fare ranges in quality from mildly entertaining to twisted and sad. But the show would have exponentially raised the bar on the reality concept. Welcome to the Neighborhood unleashes the power of reality TV when it acts as mirror, not as sideshow.
This essay, distributed by the Featurewell service, originally appeared in Good Times, an arts and entertainment paper in California's Santa Cruz County.
No Neighborhood. More room for ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO