Have you seen the television show called “What Would You Do”? The hour-long program airs on ABC on Friday nights. Actors are planted in public settings where they play out some kind of interpersonal conflict: a shopper behaves cruelly towards a grocery bagger with a disability; an interracial couple announces their engagement to racist parents who freak out; a waitress applying at a restaurant is told she can’t wear a Muslim head covering on the job.
The storylines are completely fake. But unwitting bystanders overhear these exchanges, and the question to viewers becomes: Will they intervene? Will they come to a stranger’s aid? Will they stand up for what’s right? Or as host John Quiñones puts it, “When you think no one is watching, do you step in, step up or step away?”
The premise sounds promising. After all, we know people are mostly kindhearted. So wouldn’t this show simply demonstrate the best side of humanity?
It certainly involves a whole lot of hidden cameras, disguises and intrigue. But the only real mystery on this show is how long it will take before a variety of unsuspecting Americans are revealed to be bigots or wimps. They’re the ones who hang back, maybe grimacing in disapproval or whispering to their friends when they see a disturbing altercation, but never really getting involved. And then there’s all the make-you-squirm scenarios that are acted out specially for the show: An over-the-edge mom throws her squabbling young children out of the car and drives away. A badly battered woman walks into a restaurant followed by an abusive boyfriend who berates her. Why do we want to watch people make this stuff up? Sure, maybe some of them were inspired, as the host says, by real-life news. But hello: who really needs to see them re-enacted in all their gory details? Isn’t that a bit like gaping at a car wreck?
Unfortunately this kind of setup not only brings out the best in people, but also the worst in a few folks who take the wrong side, or just hang back in apathy. And that seems to play right into what the producers are going for: The WWYD website promises to “draw outrage” and make you “cringe.” Sure, high drama makes great reality television. If helpful bystanders stepped in every time, there wouldn’t be any show.
But, see, I don’t think we need to fabricate more ugliness. Although I like the idea of a TV show that makes us think about when and how we offer a helping hand to someone in distress, this one doesn’t do it for me.
What Would I Do? Probably turn off the TV.