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'WWYD?' Is Your Television Guilty Pleasure for the New Year

By Clare Maceira | TV | December 31, 2016 |

By Clare Maceira | TV | December 31, 2016 |

We all have our guilty pleasure tv shows (I won’t come for y’all today, it’s the holidays and it’s been a tough year).

My personal guilty pleasure? ABC’s hidden camera social experiment reality show What Would You Do?. WWYD?, as the hip kids call it, is hosted by the always-smiling to the point of unnerving pleasantness John Quiñones. Quiñones has traveled the US of A on a shame reign of terror for nearly ten years, always ready to shame and question people when they ignore or agree with bad people. It’s Candid Camera on speed.

The gist is simple: Quiñones and company watches as a hot topic social experiment takes place — anything from an interracial couple being harassed to a crying baby locked in a car to a poor mother struggling to buy a toy for her child — and films what unsuspecting and hella nosy bystanders do, or don’t do, when placed in that situation. Sometimes they go full-on hilarious, with people forced to deal with general rudeness, like a random person asking for tastes of their food at a diner, to someone losing out on a big cash prize to the person who skipped ahead of them in line. That’s it, that has been the premise since 2008. It’s a good formula, viewers love it. The show is so popular, when Quiñones pops out to surprise his unknowing victims, they immediately scream or act like they’re on Punk’d, embarrassed they allowed themselves to get caught up in the gag.

I admit, when WWYD does a race-centric experiment (such as a theft individually by a white man or woman, and a black man, with bystanders inevitably and immediately treating the black man with suspicion while going as far as to help the white person), my internal Kill Bill alarm immediately goes parking meter …

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…as people tend to disappoint with their unconscious biases. However, these instances are often outweighed by the amount of people in other circumstances outraged by discrimination, injustice, or harm being threatened upon others, and stepping in to help. As exploitative as the show tends to be (tears of relief are often shed by unknowing participants, and sometimes even the actors cry as fake situations hit far too close to home), WWYD tends to, more often than not, show that there are still good people out there, willing to fight for what’s right. It hits right in the feels, man.

WWYD’s recent Christmas episode found people buying trees for less-fortunate buyers, or putting innocent civilians directly in the headline-making tale of Minnesota’s Mall of America’s decision to hire a black Santa. As we all know, news comments everywhere expressed joy and encouragement over this more diverse development during Christmas time (actually, they didn’t. People reacted horribly. It was bad). However, WWYD? is quick to show us that this mentality, no matter how vocal, is certainly not the majority.

A visit to a New Jersey diner had two children, one black and one white, encountering a black Santa. The white child is skeptical, noting in every experiment “Santa is white.” Several patrons’ smiles visibly fade at the child’s proclamation, and one white woman even produces a photo of her husband, a black man, dressed as Santa. One patron even tells the children “real Santa is love, real Santa has no color.” When Quiñones asks a woman how to fix the focus on race with Santa, she appears at a loss for words, shaking her head before saying we all need to respect each other. It’s hard to argue she — and we — aren’t thinking about the current environment surrounding us.

Honestly, I went into this ready to snark away and talk about how messy the show sometimes is (and it really is, Quiñones orchestrates and riles up situations with the expertise of a puppetmaster, it’s a gift), but this show actually warmed my cold heart at times. WWYD? is at times a bizarre, enraging mess, but there are also instances which renew my hope that society isn’t all that bad. There’s a lot of good people out there, and this program shows people are still willing to speak up and speak out. It’s a good reminder of the good in this world. We’re going to need that. Also, surprise shame bombs that will have you yelling “why DIDN’T you help, Larry from Wichita, Kansas?! I SAW YOU. WE ALL DID.”

Happy holidays, everyone! Watch a marathon of WWYD? for me and hit your loved one’s arm as you tell them just what you would have done in that situation, unlike LARRY FROM WICHITA, KANSAS.

What Would You Do? airs on ABC and Hulu.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.