Essay: Having It All

March 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: It’s always useful to take note of a moment when civilization is coming to an end. I think it’s now. As evidence, see Donald Trump and his new, wildly successful television series, “The Apprentice,” in which a number of hungry young men and women enter various competitions to win the job of heading one of Mr. Trump’s companies at $250,000 a year.

With such a salary, Mr. Trump says, the winner may begin his or her path toward riches as great as Mr. Trump’s. The show asks: What if you could have it all? What if you could live in an apartment like Mr. Trump’s, laden with gold and more gold? The apartment is said to be drop-dead gorgeous. One certainly feels like doing that.

What, then, is the proffered standard of success? It is excess, the basis of the seven deadly sins. Excess, it’s back. A segment on a morning show recently was devoted to the launch of the “Queen Mary II,” a flotsam of opulence with, they boast, two elevators, ten restaurants, one with a glass domed roof, and a spa.

SPOKESPERSON: Hi! Good evening!

ROGER ROSENBLATT: On two other new shows, “The Bachelorette,” and the nearly unbelievable, “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” they display houses that must have been sold by the Donald Trump Company. My own bowling alley!

On these and other shows everyone rides in a block-long limousine greeted by butlers out of “Night of the Living Dead.” The recipients of this bounty always respond in the same ways: “It’s beautiful! It’s a fantasy! This is the life!” Well, it certainly is presented as the life.

As for reality as opposed to reality TV, Michael Jackson rides in a car with reclining back seat and champagne flutes on the way to court to face child molesting charges. To ensure that excessive commerce is never detached from justice, three California cities competed to be the location of the Scott Peterson trial. Who, I wonder, will be the corporate sponsor of the event?

Not all this is done without humor. At his wedding ceremony on a show called “Celebrity Weddings,” Shaquille O’Neal altered his marriage vow and said, “for richer and richer,” thus introducing a little smile of perspective into a world that seems about to burst at the seams. And to think that many of the impoverished peoples of the planet hate Americans. Go figure.

What all this seems to come back to is the familiar question: What are the proper limits of a life’s ambitions? Mr. Trump is certain that anyone in his right mind would kill to achieve his standard of living. It makes one feel kind of foolish to ask, are you kidding? What’s wrong with me that I don’t want a crystal chandelier the size of a meteor or a kitchen to die for, or a bowling alley to live for? Come to think of it, what’s wrong with me that I watch these shows?

Of course, I could be wrong about all this, and the purveyors of this too muchness may be pulling our national leg. No one really wants to hop around in a private helicopter or to soak in a hot tub the size of Lake Michigan. If the riches displayed really represent “all that money can buy,” it would suggest that money isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. And, anyway, the true basic appeal of these events is to offer public humiliation, to which rich and poor are equally available.

SINGING: Unbelievable sky…

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Michael and Martha and all the talentless desperadoes on “American Idol,” as well as the failed aspirants on “The Apprentice,” whose greatest fear in life seems to be to hear tell them…

DONALD TRUMP: You’re fired.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Lucky devils. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.