Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The high cost of (balloon) inflation

Thanks a lot, Octomom. Look what you’ve started. Our insatiable hunt for publicity, for fame and all of its accompanying financial possibilities has claimed another victim (or more accurately, five of them). As the story of the Heene family of Fort Collins, Colo., continues to unfold, or unravel, we’re getting an object lesson in the perils of pursuit of fame at any cost — and a study of the apparent vacancy, the emptiness of our lives without validation by the public.

Last Thursday the nation’s attention was riveted by the story of Falcon Heene, the precocious 6-year-old boy thought to be aboard a makeshift experimental balloon that was, um, accidentally aloft over the skies of Colorado. For almost three hours the cable networks and news Web sites followed the story, praying the little kid survived the runaway balloon’s aimless flight. When it finally came down … surprise, no Falcon Heene aboard.

The brief panic that ensued — where was the little tyke? Had he fallen out of the aircraft while it was aloft? — ended when Falcon Heene was found later, safe at home. What’s followed in the days since Falcon I fell to earth has been a slow unfolding of what Colorado authorities have flatly said was a hoax, pure and simple.

Now, of course, we’re into the customary post-debacle PR dance: the parents, Mayumi and Richard Heene, have retained legal counsel to assert their innocence; and there’s presumably comic speculation that Richard Heene could pose for Playgirl, the apparent preferred publishing venue of social restitution (Sarah Palin’s accidental son-in-law Levi Johnston is bulking up for an appearance in the same magazine).

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The Heene adults are looking down the barrel of several serious charges, including conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, making a false report to authorities and attempting to influence a public servant.

The heaviest charges, felonies all, carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison. Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said authorities would be seeking restitution for costs incurred in the attempted rescue. Richard Heene, the family aeronautical engineer, and a storm chaser and aficionado of extreme science, could face federal charges (he notified the Federal Aviation Administration of the incident).

For all the official posturing by Colorado law enforcement, and the justifiable attention paid to scarce financial resources enlisted in the retrieval of not much more than a glorified Jiffy Pop container, the Heenes are ultimately guilty of being the victims of a celebrity-besotted society, a culture contributing to the delinquency of itself.

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The Heenes and their three sons twice appeared on ABC's "Wife Swap," most recently in March, when they explained their offbeat approach to parenting, and laid out their conviction that they’re descended from aliens.

“When the Heene family aren't chasing storms, they devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm,” says a weirdly prescient promo on the WifeSwap Web site.

For the Heenes, and for countless others seduced by the reality programming that makes up so much of the current television landscape, the celebrity bug rivals the H1N1 virus as an unavoidable contagion.

Coming in the wake of the rise of Nadya Suleman, the Octomom, whose kids-by-the-litter approach to motherhood made her a financially lucrative sensation last year, and not long after the “Jon & Kate Plus 8” reality show turned into a marital train wreck suitable for the tabloids, the Heene incident says more about our culture than about the family itself.

In the current still-disastrous state of the economy, Americans are looking for their own bailouts, whether it’s on mainstream TV (“Jon & Kate,” “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race,” “Survivor”) or on TV of the closed-circuit kind. We’ve seen that many times in the last eighteen months: surveillance images of trucks crashing into closed convenience stores, followed by the redistribution of wealth that happens when occupants of said trucks drag the stores’ ATM machines into the American night.

The Heene affair waits for the next act; the authorities expect the charges to be formally filed next week. When that happens, ironically enough, the Heenes may have found the basis for a TV meta-phenomenon: a reality series about a family seeking a reality series — the perfect distillation of our feverish desire to matter to someone beside ourselves.
Image credit: Balloon aloft: KUSA > CNN. Octomom: Source unknown. Jon & Kate Plus 8 title card: The Learning Channel.

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