“This is like a reality TV show!” exclaimed a woman in the crowded public gallery observing last week’s Washington town council meeting, as elected leaders played Donald Trump-like real estate wheeler-dealers. Coincidentally, an Emmy Award-winning production company let it be known that it was looking to produce a documentary-style reality TV show featuring a small-town newspaper.
Certainly, the Rappahannock News is well placed, in the words of the production company, “to deliver highly rated programs that entertain, inform, immerse, engage and inspire.” That’s because, here in Rappahannock, reporting the news (and hearing, but not reporting, the gossip) turns conventional wisdom on its head.
Life in the country, as opposed to the city, is anything but sleepy and simple. Rather, self-interest and other human passions that animate us all are less likely to be hidden here than under an urban veneer of so-called civilization. It’s hard to hide in a community so small that everybody knows everybody else – or at the very least their names, and often their spouses’ and pets’ names as well.
Family, friends and work all overlap and blend together here in the country. There is no compartmentalization as there is in urban and suburban life, where your neighbors often have no idea of your occupation, much less your neurotic family history.
Such intimate small-town life should have a mitigating effect on bad behavior, right? That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. The notion of shame and guarding one’s reputation must surely tame such base instincts and sins as greed, power-mad gluttony and adultery.
Instead, perceived societal transgressions are never judged in isolation, as they would be in the anonymous world of the city. Rather, they’re put in context of the fully rounded characters we know.
So of the deadbeat who seldom pays his bills, it is said: “Oh, that’s just Bubba. He’s just been so busy lately. You know how he is, so creative and never worrying about details.”
Of the elected official who always gets his way: “Yeah, he can come across as kind of elitist and arrogant, but he’s really a nice guy and only wants what’s best for the town/county. And his wife is lovely.”
In short, we’re forgiving because we know one another in more than a one-dimensional, strictly-business kind of way.
But perhaps another word for “forgiving” is “enabling.” And instead of one, big happy family, maybe Rappahannock is more like Tolstoy’s uniquely unhappy families, each unhappy in our own way – that is, dysfunctional. Which makes for the most compelling reality TV!