Morality TV

The hidden-camera show What Would You Do? reveals the persistence of American decency.

Frank Stockton

Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it, sings the man with the crooked shoulders and the cold, level glare. I wanna destroy passerby! Good old Johnny Rotten: they’ll have stained-glass windows of him one day. What’s he telling us here, in the charred scripture of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.”? He’s telling us, first, that he is full of free-floating violence, that he has a keen desire to take out whoever happens to be around precisely because they happen to be around, like the mad sniper popping away at Steve Martin in The Jerk: “Random son of a bitch! Typical run-of-the-mill bastard!” And he’s telling us—with equal vehemence—that the sealed-off modern self, the little traveling subject-bubble whose minding-its-own-business legitimizes every kind of social ill, the one who “pass[es] by on the other side” like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is due for annihilation.

Destroy Passerby would be an only slightly more finger-jabbing title for What Would You Do?, the hidden-camera show broadcast by ABC since 2008. It turns out that the outer-space virus of reality TV contains its own antibodies: anthro-reality shows like this one, which are packed with chewy data about the species, and which leave you not fizzing with anomie, as after a session of The Bachelorette, but nourished and strangely hopeful. The host, John Quiñones, uses actors, surveillance, and the tremendous funds of terror and awkwardness that are available to us as everyday mammals. He plants fake bigots and meanies in public places, where they oppress, harangue, mouth off. Ordinary Americans are aghast; Quiñones, concealed nearby, crouches over his monitor to watch the fun. (He often has to rush out of his little van or studio booth, grinning and bearish, to enfold the situation before it goes haywire.) If you were on the boardwalk, in beachy weather, and you passed a man loudly berating his bikini-clad wife for being overweight—what would you do? If you were in line at the supermarket, and the shopper in front of you began abusing the man with Down syndrome who was bagging her groceries—what would you do? It’s fascinating viewing, because it feels existential. With flickering eyes, with prickling pores, the onlooker/bystander/passerby begins to gauge the seriousness of the dilemma. Here is life, buddy boy, here is the challenge. Surely you’re not going to be allowed to just sit there with banana sundae all over your face. Will you rise to the occasion?

The fraying of the human contract, the late-capitalist shattering of social responsibility, is a subject that sociologically minded psychologists have been chewing on for decades. John Darley and Bibb Latané introduced the concept of the bystander effect in a series of studies in the late 1960s and ’70s, demonstrating that onlookers were less likely to intervene in a situation if others were present. And What Would You Do? recalls to a degree the woolly, anything-goes vibe of ’70s campus experimentation, when the names of bands and psychological trials became briefly interchangeable: the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Alan Parsons Project.

Out there on the streets, American diffusion does daily battle with American decency, and decency, by God, often wins.

Currently, as you may have heard, we’re in the 21st century, when technologized omni-awareness functions as a quasi-divine critique: under the red eye of judgment we shuffle along, our peccadilloes and fleeting ennoblements logged not by angels but by cellphone cameras. Mace a protester, mistreat a cat, and you’ll be on YouTube before you can say “John Quiñones.” What Would You Do? stays ahead of the amateur clips by emphasizing its own artificiality: experts are invited to comment on the psychological tropes displayed by the show’s unwitting subjects (“When you’re threatened, you think in terms of categories,” explains a Yale psychologist), and the scenarios are frequently adjusted mid-experiment, tweaked and recalibrated to test the variables. What if it was the wife on the boardwalk telling the husband that he was out of shape? What if the grocery bagger with Down syndrome was being bullied not by a middle-aged woman but by a couple of teenagers? Who would stand up then?

The anxiety, of course, is that no one would, that civilization itself is a mirage, some kind of wafting mental construct that dissolves upon contact with the Ayn Randian all-against-all. We all share this anxiety, so when Quiñones’s cameras uncover a wrong-righter, a Davy-Crockett-in-the-street, we are tearfully grateful. “You weren’t afraid that he might turn on you?,” Quiñones asks the small woman who just threatened to punch out one of the grocery-bagger bullies. (The women on this show are notably more courageous than the men.) “When I get that angry?” says the woman. “When it has to do with injustice? I really don’t care.” Yes! We need this. Our faces are cellphone-blue, our little hands clammy from hovering in the space above the laptop keyboard; we need warmth. A fix of humanity, of commonality.

And where there’s a demand, there will be a supply. Clips from What Would You Do? are often featured on Upworthy, the vastly eyeballed Web site that collects the most morally nutritional content on the Net and repackages it under tickle-the-liberal-brain-stem headlines: “She Didn’t Think She Had a Problem With Gay People, but Anderson Cooper Cleared That Right Up.” Or: “Robin Williams’ Advice for People Who Are Depressed Is Really Touching and Important.” Upworthy pumps these links into the vacuums of social media, where they await your need for a restorative hit of—to quote the site—“Things That Matter.” An enormous edification aggregator: how very 2015.

People like to watch television, but television also likes to watch people, peering back into daily life with proboscile lenses. It’s been doing this almost since the beginning. Rebooting Candid Camera a few months back, following a 10-year hiatus, Peter Funt—son of Allen, who created the show in 1948 (!)—remarked that his father “fancied himself a student of human nature, and the pranks were really just a means toward an end, so he could study people.”

Behind the camera, today, might be a smiling, all-knowing Quiñones, or a wry Funt, or an amateur pointing his cellphone—an onlooker, by definition, but not quite a passerby. Is any of this necessarily less scientific than, say, 1963’s infamous Milgram experiment, an “obedience to authority” test in which subjects were persuaded/coerced into giving (fake) electric shocks to a strapped-down man (an actor) who was in another room but whose distress was clearly audible? The maverick psychologist Quiñones has made an important finding—that out there on the streets, American diffusion does daily battle with American decency, and decency, by God, often wins.

American decency is magnificent. It is gruff, and virile, and baldly eloquent. In a busy deli, one of Quiñones’s actors plays a Muslim clerk, another a racist customer who doesn’t want to buy his chips from a terrorist. (“I don’t forget 9/11, buddy, okay?”) As the day progresses and the skit is repeated in front of different sets of customers, the racist is variously yelled at, apologized for, patiently lectured, and in one case agreed with by an exotic, unapologetic bigot. The highlight, though, the money shot of righteousness, comes with the arrival at the deli counter of a uniformed American soldier. “Aren’t you fighting against these guys?” asks the shrewd racist, to which the soldier gives a superb, geopolitically wearied answer: “Not at the moment.”

But the racist won’t shut up. On and on he goes, hectoring and provoking, until the quiet soldier waiting for his sandwich is roused to deliver this speech: “Buy your chips and move out. Get out … You have a choice to shop anywhere just like he has a choice to practice his religion anywhere. That’s the reason I wear the uniform, so anyone can live free in this country. Leave the man alone, buy your stuff, and leave.” The flag ripples, the eagle soars, and Johnny Rotten heaves the wounded traveler onto the back of the Samaritan’s donkey. Mission accomplished: passerby destroyed.