|EVER SINCE THE FOX Network's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? aired last February, the media have been atwitter over the ethics of reality TV. Professional handwringers began colliding in their stampede to condemn the artifice and Darwinian cruelty of shows like Survivor. "Has television lost its mind?" the Washington Post whined, adding another jewel to some pedant's collection of oxymorons. "Why does so much mass-produced culture seem addicted to the lurid, the amoral or the just plain out there?" Rather than reflecting society's norms, the Post sermonized, sleazy television may be lowering them. Blah, blah, blah.
Let's not forget that America's norms included, for an era much longer than the brief lifespan of TV, entertainments dominated by blood sports like public torture and execution. I defend television because I am a true devotee; in our house it's called teedle, and I spend at least four hours a day basking in teedle's wan, consoling light. At the top of my personal "reality" curve would be two offerings from Comedy Central, Win Ben Stein's Money and The Man Show. At the bottom is a viewing disaster called Eco-Challenge, an annual hard-core adventure race set in various rugged locales. This April's Eco-Challenge Argentina, in which teams of four hardbodies raced by foot and horse and kayak for 12 days across 197 miles of Patagonia, was the worst. Because it was a matter of hours that separated the athletes at the finish line, rather than seconds, watching the little figures skitter around the scenery was like waiting for seawater to evaporate so you can get some salt. Coincidentally, the race director and the man who sold the Eco-Challenge idea to the Discovery Channel is none other than Mark Burnett.
Let's also not forget that this new wave of reality television swamping America came from Europe—Highbrow Heaven, home of your Wagners, your Prousts, your Klees. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was a British idea. Mark Burnett bought the concept of Survivor from the Swedes, who have been producing their Expedition Robinson for three years on an island off the West Malaysian state of Johor. (The winner of that contest gets a mere 65 grand.)
One day, while searching obsessively through all the trash being written about the show, I opened my paper and found an Associated Press photo of the chosen ones. The women looked like marginally worthy opponents, but the men! You couldn't find a less promising collection of gomers at any of those backwater beer joints frequented by poachers and shade-tree mechanics. OK, one, Rudy, 72, was an ex–Navy SEAL, and Sean, 30, claimed to be a neurologist, but looking at them, I knew I could outwit them blindfolded. How this dim and sneering bunch passed ten days of grilling by CBS and six hours of psychological testing was a mystery. My bitterness was now complete.
Meanwhile the show moved on without me, and the contestants were shipped off to Pulau Tiga, where they were discovering that the island can be a formidably unhealthy place for campers. No Club Med, it swarms with evil vectors that bite and suck and cause malaria and Japanese encephalitis, mammals that harbor rabies, plus poisonous spiders and snakes and unrelenting heat and humidity. And even though CBS planted sugarcane and tapioca on the island to supplement their crude diet of fruit, fish, and vermin, the players were being scrutinized every waking moment by overfed helicopter and ground crews. Add to all of this the humiliation of a national audience watching as you walk the Walk of Shame off the island, and it's no wonder CBS felt compelled to supply the losers with a shrink as they were whisked away via chopper. (The first ejectee from 1997's Expedition Robinson, a Bosnian refugee who was reported to have been suffering from depression, killed himself shortly before the show aired.)
No comforting shrinks were laid on by the suits at CBS for this unbalanced writer, however, after they rejected me not once, but twice. But, hey, that's OK. I believe that doing something amusing with your rage is the best therapy of all.