Years and years and years ago, which is when most of the things I can still remember seem to have happened, my friend Rita Kemply, now a Washington Post film critic, and I came up with an idea for a TV talk show. We were sick of namby-pamby showbiz suck-up interviews, so on our show, to be called “Fess Up,” if a guest failed to answer a question to our satisfaction, we’d simply smack them around. We figured that would encourage them to come through with an acceptable response.
We were kidding.
Now, though, I think it might sell. I think its time has come. Rita and I should probably go out to L.A. and pitch it.
Pitch it perhaps to Fox, the meanest network in town. In the tradition of its celebrity boxing show and “Temptation Island” and others too numerous to mention, Fox has struck another vein of fool’s gold by combining “Talent Scouts” and “Star Search” and giving it-oh most vaunted of all ideals-Edge. The result: “American Idol,” a summer hit largely because one of the judges on the show is a smug British snot who insults and humiliates would-be stars after they give their little performances. That’s the gimmick that has sold “Idol” to audiences.
One might argue that Chuck Barris’ inspired romp “The Gong Show” trafficked in humiliation of amateurs too, but it was good-natured, harmless stuff. That show was a celebration of human self-delusion, the ability of untalented people to imagine they have talent. It was, in that time-honored phrase, all in good fun. “American Idol” is all in mean spirit.
A trend we could do without
You want hot trends in entertainment? This is, alas, a hot trend in entertainment. On television, it probably got its biggest boost from the success, however fleeting, of NBC’s acidic quiz show “Weakest Link.” The inspiration here was to have a diminutive nasty-nanny type-British again, by coincidence, one hopes-ridiculing contestants for answering questions wrong or for failing to master the absurdly complicated rules of the game.
One might perhaps trace this impulse back to Richard Dawson, the original and utterly masterful host of “Family Feud,” one of TV’s great game shows from an earlier and less hostile age. Old episodes air twice daily, sometimes in the middle of the night, on the Game Show Channel. Dawson would scoff, but gently, when contestants gave baldly ridiculous answers to questions, and at the time this was a refreshing departure from what had been standard emcee behavior on such programs: cloying, grinny, bogus bonhomie.
The difference between then and now is made particularly striking on this network because in addition to rerunning old game shows (“Match Game,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” “The $100,000 Pyramid”), it has, alas, engendered a slew of new ones. Take “Russian Roulette,” for instance. No, losers aren’t shot in the head. But they are dropped through trap doors and, gosh, isn’t that funny? Thus the show’s chief come-on: See people made fools of and physically endangered.
“Press Your Luck” airs in two versions on the Game Show Channel, both of them insipid but only one of them malicious. In reruns of the original edition, contestants accumulate cash or prizes but only until the unpredictable moment when a gremlinlike “Whammy” appears and stops them. On the old show it made a funny noise or something. On the new show, the Whammy manifests itself in stuff dropped on contestants’ heads-a hundred ping-pong balls or gobs of oatmeal or whatever. Ha ha, see the poor saps pummeled and debased! That’s entertainment. Or is it?
When it comes to pure reckless endangerment, though, NBC, of course, wrote the book, such as it is, with “Fear Factor,” a sadistic sideshow so meretricious that certain NBC executives may go to hell for this offense alone, never mind that they also put on “Spy TV” and gave Carson Daly a talk show.
On “Fear Factor,” as everyone woefully knows, some depraved kind of diversion is to be gleaned from watching people eat bugs or animal anuses or seeing them writhe in vats of rats. You’d think the people working on this show would be perpetually worried that God might strike them with a lightning bolt at any moment. It’s Original Sin manifesting itself as a television program.
The new maliciousness
The great viral rash of dating shows, many of them syndicated, is more sad proof of a relatively new maliciousness running riot in TV. Like dating wasn’t perilous and nerve-wracking enough; now one’s gaffes and goofs and hideously awkward moments might well be paraded in public for the amusement of a national audience. Even if most of the contestants on these shows know about the surveillance in advance, the way the stuff is edited-leeringly smart-ass captions added in post-production, for instance-is designed for maximum degradation.
As with other unhappy TV trends, it appears those of us who are disgusted by this one will just have to wait it out, assuming the glut of such shows will decrease their attractiveness to the audience and they’ll start dying. But “reality TV” seems a genre that will never go away, whether the show in question is honorable or execrable. It’s an accepted format now, like sitcoms or dramas, and we’re stuck with it indefinitely.
There may be relief at hand in the courts. The perverse determination to push the envelope too far reached a new rock-bottom in June when it was revealed that a Washington couple is suing Viacom, MTV and producer Ashton Kutcher (better known as a likable comic actor) for $10 million after being trapped in a “gag” for an upcoming reality game show called “Harassment.” According to the suit, the funny-funny joke played on the couple was to have hidden cameras tape their reactions when they found a realistic-looking “mutilated corpse” in their Las Vegas hotel room. The authenticating details included having the desiccated body lying in what looked like a pool of blood.
When the couple tried to escape, the suit alleges, the unwitting victims were prevented from doing so by actors posing as security guards. Say now, who was the genius that dreamed up this one? How many “creative” people sitting around the conference table chuckled and drooled over the hilarious prospects inherent in such a sick and twisted caper?
Infliction of emotional distress is one of three offenses cited in the suit. Maybe there could be a class action suit by masses of viewers citing the same effect from watching such stuff.
One beneficial side effect of the litigation: “Harassment” has reportedly been canceled by MTV long before it was set to debut (perhaps prompting Kutcher to ask, “Dude, where’s my show?”). Here’s a case where a chilling effect would be all to the good-if other producers, mindful of the suit, think twice before engineering some other ghastly prank or launching yet another humiliation television show.
It seems unimaginably perverse, really-in essence, using the latest thing in video technology to update primitive torture rituals from the Dark Ages and beyond. And I’ve only scratched the surface here. There are hours and hours of willful, spiteful, hurtful stuff available every day on multiple channels. Television’s always had a mean streak. But now, I’m afraid, it’s wider than a mile.