Scott Brown
May 02, 2006 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Troubled reality star Paula Meronek (pictured) says The Real World saved her. Says her TV roomies made her face her demons — bulimia, an abusive boyfriend — and get help. Sure, she’s still taking diet pills and the boyfriend remains a fixture. Plus, she’s doing promotional visits to bars around the country, in the obligatory 15-minutes-of-fame tour every Real Worlder seems compelled to take. But she says she’s better. Do we, the voyeurship — sorry, viewership — feel better too? Should we?

It’s a question worth pondering, precisely because reality TV continues to erase the distinctions between public and private spheres, between television drama and real-life malaise. The pathetic and distressed make excellent television, and the pressure on producers and networks to recruit ever more unstable specimens for their broadcast zoos is only going to increase. Eventually, we may watch one “edgy” show where borderline personalities tear each other limb from limb (cue “edgy” music), and then follow it with a palliative “uplifting” show where Ty Pennington gathers up those torn limbs and sews them into a bright shiny new human being (cue Forrest Gump theme).

Who knows? Maybe this will end up bringing us all closer together as a species. Maybe this is the digital utopia we’ve been waiting for.

But I doubt it.

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