Game Show Fame

Fifty million people watched, but no one saw a thing.

This tagline belongs to the film Quiz Show, which cleverly depicts America’s fascination with weeknight game-show drama. In 1955, millions tuned their black-and-white television sets to watch NBC’s Twenty-One, where men of talent and wit displayed their intelligence by answering the hardest questions that could be put to them, in both scholarly and popular domains. The one catch to America’s favorite game show, however, was that none of the drama and challenge was real.

Quiz Show dramatizes the real-life story of Twenty-One contestant Charles van Doren. Van Doren was a brilliant man—an English professor and an astrophysicist—but the show’s producers wanted to rig the show in his favor to ensure higher ratings. At first Van Doren refused, but as the questions became more difficult his confidence weakened. Not wishing to lose his popularity, Van Doren stayed on the show and recited the answers he received from the producers beforehand. Within ten weeks he reached celebrity status on a national scale and was known more for his game-show appearances than his academic career.

While the film provides an interesting perspective on the entertainment industry, it also raises a few questions about the nature and role of fame.

Fame itself is easy enough to identify. Today, high levels of Facebook chatter and appearances in mainstream media are the usual indicators. Besides something we give to others, fame is also what each of us, at least to some degree, desire for ourselves. It may be nothing on a grand scale, but the possibility of being well known and liked does give us comfort and a sense of acceptance.

Fame by itself, however, is not a recipe for happiness. St. Thomas Aquinas says that happiness is human nature’s perfection in goodness, and fame, rather than making a person good, simply acknowledges some goodness already present. Thus, while fame can add to a person’s delight in his own goodness or excellence, he is primarily happy because of that goodness, not because of its recognition. In other words, happiness is prior to and precedes popularity. Fame, even when “justified,” is ultimately derivative.

Having fame without goodness, therefore, can only produce an artificial delight, and even then not for very long. Although first enamored with his popularity, Van Doren eventually found himself utterly miserable. Unable to continue, he purposely lost the game show and publicly confessed his deception. His popularity had rested on nothing more than the acclaim of a deceived audience, and his inability to delight in such acclaim for long just underscores the fact that his fame was without meaning.

Fame for fame’s sake is as empty as it sounds, but fame can be a positive thing when it recognizes and promotes true goodness. The canonized saints are a perfect example here. Although many of them were not well known during their earthly lives—and even those who were did not seek out acclaim—their goodness eventually became known and celebrated. But it was their goodness, not its recognition, that was the cause of their happiness. And, of course, their goodness was only a participation in the goodness of God himself, who is the source of all goodness. The praise and fame of all creatures, therefore, must ultimately redound to their Creator. Mindful of this, let us give glory to God for whatever happiness or goodness we enjoy, making our own the words of the three holy children in the Book of Daniel:

Servants of the Lord, bless the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
Holy men of humble heart, bless the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
Let us bless the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Praiseworthy and exalted above all forever. (Dn 3:85–87)

Image: Orlando Fernandez, Twenty-One Host Jack Berry Turns to Charles Van Doren as Contestant Vivenne Nearing Looks On

By | 2015-01-27T13:15:18+00:00 November 13, 2012|Movies & TV, Virtue & Moral Life|

About this Brother:

Br. Athanasius Murphy, O.P.
Br. Athanasius Murphy entered the Order of Preachers in 2010. He is a graduate of Providence College and studied Classics, Humanities and Philosophy there. He worked for a lawyer during his college years, but was intent on entering the Order of Preachers after he graduated college. On DominicanFriars.org