Like a prude experimenting in profanity or a lover grabbing fearfully after a last chance at bliss, NBC has plunged feet-first into the reality-show fracas, clasping vulgarity to its bosom with greedy, and not particularly well-judged, avidity. Which may well be the right move: Both Fear Factor and Spy TV have been runaway hits despite massive critical derision. We've all been predicting that the tribe will speak for reality shows, as Jeff Probst would say, but to date this program remains very much alive on our American island.
You can't call Fear Factor (7:00 p.m. Mondays; KARE-TV Channel 11) "cheesy," since cheese, as I understand the term, involves failed aspirations to something higher. This show barely aims for narrative. Most of its budget is spent on the scary/yucky stunts that each contestant must perform in order to continue (six people start, and the winner receives a hardly-worth-the-pain $50,000). Nonetheless, I find Fear Factor rivetingly disgusting, or disgustingly riveting: Apparently, everyone's secret hope is to be on Jackass. Johnny Knoxville, all is forgiven.
Unlike Knoxville, meanie host Joe Rogan doesn't have to do much--certainly not read a script. Rogan is like other hosts, only more so: He doesn't even pretend to be interested, or in the least bit concerned about any of the contestants' feelings. Instead of the earnest psycho-explorations of Survivor ("I sense you're feeling some resentment, Jerri"), this show is like seventh-grade gym class, a brutal Darwinian winnowing of weak from strong. "You're losing it here!" he barks unsympathetically at one contestant who begins to cry at the prospect of spending four minutes submerged in a tub of nasty-looking, and biting, worms. As the eventual runner-up lies blanketed by the worms, Joe sensitively remarks, "This is the nastiest thing I've ever seen in my life! If you feel them laying eggs, let me know." On another episode, in which the contestants must eat as many beetles as pins are left after one frame of bowling, he points out, "You're gonna feel them squishing in your mouth when you chomp down." Thanks for the warning, dude.
For their part, the contestants are drawn from the apparently infinite supply of personal trainers, bartenders, and executive assistants dreaming of stardom (which means that Colleen Haskell of the first Survivor, a supporting player in Rob Schneider's new movie, is our culture's Lana Turner). And they mouth the usual pop Nietzsche. "This whole thing is about fear. Fear is anything negative that keeps you from your goals," one aspirant explains. "Chicken ain't nothing but a bird," growls another. Five seconds of political commentary: Is it fair to assume that shows like this reinforce a basic consensus that social justice is for kooks? The rigorously diverse contestant pool seems calibrated to assure us that equal opportunity is no myth, that no one demographic holds a tactical advantage in rat-pit sitting as a result of upbringing. And that anyone hoping to discuss structural inequality would be a weakling or coward, unable to stand the fear. Maybe Bush really did win that election after all.
Of course, to make such a claim I'd have to pretend that the show doesn't compel me. Unfortunately, it does. I'm particularly taken by the VerminCam, the pest's-eye view of the swarms of creepy-crawlies (rats, worms, beetles, earthworms, etc.) that the contestants must endure or ingest during the second "extreme stunt." I missed the buried-with-rats episode, but the smothered-with-worms segment was, hands down, one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen. In contrast, the next week, wherein the contestants chowed down on a total of 28 beetles among the five of them, including one woman who got four down despite pro-vomit cheering by her fellows, seemed as staid as Masterpiece Theatre.
Since I can see the thrill diminishing with repetition, let me offer a suggestion whose baroque possibilities surely won't occur to the show's producers: literature. Imagine all those bits from Poe and Stephen King that we could now have the privilege of reenacting for pay and pleasure--premature burial, drenchings with pig's blood, ax chases through old hotels. Or, hey, let's really go old-school: Why not crucifixion? I can imagine the exchange now:
JOE ROGAN: You're up there in the Sinai sun, the rough boards are giving you splinters. Losing consciousness will result in disqualification. So tell us: How does it feel?
CONTESTANT: Ohhh, it hurts. The nails through my feet aren't too bad, but my hands are really feeling it.
But that's just a bad dream. Right?
I think the real significance of this show is its index of late-imperial decadence. Remember how people used to whisper that maybe snuff films were real, and that, you know, a friend of a friend had actually seen one where some kid got it? Well, here they are. Survivor II had Mike falling into the fire. This latest program features people crashing into walls, falling off helicopters, and crawling through filth. How long before people maim themselves for our delectation (off the football field, of course)? I'd have an answer for you, but I gotta go: the next episode of Fear Factor is on.
Which is more enthusiasm than I can muster for SPY TV (7:00 p.m. Tuesdays, KARE-TV Channel 11), also a huge hit. The idea here is the old Candid Camera shtick, though I'm forced to conclude that either I've outgrown it or it was done a lot better by Allen Funt. The plot line is always the same: Poor sucker is made to suffer, gets mad, then grins sheepishly upon discovery of the camera. (One difference from previous prank shows is the personal angle to this program: Bitter hubbies and vicious friends regularly submit their loved ones for specialized abuse.) Most of the "jokes" are actually kind of mean, like the out-of-control wheelchair at the mall, or the one where the guy cuts in line at the store, then gets to be the millionth customer and receive a million-dollar check. That'll teach us to be generous!
I suppose one could argue that we see human nature in the raw this way, but the show is so surpassingly witless that my only response is a dull ache. Ten minutes spent watching this SPY TV will have you looking over your shoulder for the camera to discover what malevolent force put you up to this cruel prank.
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