Share this article

print logo

HOW TV 'REALITY' BANISHED ALL HOPE OF DECENCY

"Big Brother" almost made TV history, I tell you. It almost became one of the legendary shows of all time. Almost.

The inhabitants of the house in the least-loved specimen of sadistic "reality TV" in our time came just this close to doing the unimaginable. Just a scooch more and they'd have flown off into the cultural Empyrean.

The inhabitants of the house that's under camera scrutiny all day, every day came within a hair of telling CBS to "take this job and shove it" (in the immortal words of Johnny Paycheck). They almost chucked the whole $500,000 contest and walked out of the house hand-in-hand rather than put up with a second's more cruel inhumanity and infantilization.

They almost put into prime time TV the most devastating critique of the values of primetime television that has ever been seen on television. They almost blasted the corporate ethic to smithereens in a way that "La Femme Nikita" never thought of.

Not since "This Is Your Life" tried in vain to get Angie Dickinson to sit still and listen to voices from her past that she never wanted to hear again has there been the threat of such resolute primetime non-cooperation. Dickinson, I hope you recall, said something in the general neighborhood of "the hell with you" and took the nearest cab. Bless her principled heart, she wasn't going to give Ralph Edwards the satisfaction of a single maudlin reminiscence.

But no. Venal motives and a dedication to "the game" prevailed on "Big Brother." Never mind that "the game" actually provides for something called "banishment" every two weeks. Never mind that in this nasty 9th grade vision of a TV game show, one of George Orwell's worst nightmares is played as a "game." The whole gang decided not to rebel after all: George the roofer (so thoroughly dehumanized that he calls himself "the chicken man"), Jamie the Beauty Queen, Josh the muzzy Lothario, Eddie the one-legged athlete and Curtis the lawyer-in-training. They decided to stay in the house and find out who would be the next to be "banished" and returned to the outside world (where they would learn the full extent of American indifference to their fates).

Now, mind you, "Big Brother" is every bit as hideous a television show as it ever was. But, so help me, the worse it gets, the more interesting it also becomes. If I were you -- and you can admit what a crashing bore the Olympics frequently are -- I wouldn't let a week go by without checking it out once or twice.

TV ethics are really hitting the fan these days. But then they always do at election time. Any pol who can't score points running against Hollywood (that generic boogie man) needs to go back to Demagogy School. (I hear they teach a bang-up course in it at Bob Jones U.)

As if that weren't enough, the Federal Trade Commission just got into the act with a report slamming the entertainment industry's not-so-harmless penchant for marketing supposedly grown-up stuff to kids. Seldom have I wanted more to kiss a roomful of bureaucrats.

"Exactly," I said to no one in particular when I read about the FTC report.

Marketing. That's the villain. Not content. The First Amendment, thank heaven, permits everything. I wouldn't want to live anywhere that it didn't.

The trouble is the wholesale swallowing of the ethic that whatever you can sell is worth doing -- and the more of it you can sell, the more you ought to do it.

You can, if you're intellectually limber, get low-minded and high-horsed about all this simultaneously and say: "It's just democracy in action, pal. It's the democracy of the marketplace which is the purest democracy of all."

Then again, maybe not.

I offer as Exhibit B for the Prosecution, Court TV's embattled and now-canceled "Confessions," about which there has already been enough high-minded handwringing to fill umpteen pages in Brill's Content, the high-minded, handwringing magazine put out by Court TV honcho Steven Brill.

In case you missed this flap, "Confessions" was nothing but a TV show devoted to the videotaped confessions of famous killers -- serial killers, high-profile murderers and ordinary, garden variety killers who just happened to be caught confessing on tape.

To the obvious objection that there might be some victim's families hurt and disgusted by such blatant exploitation of loved ones' fates, the argument was that these were valuable explorations of the homicidal mind.

What we saw last Sunday were heavily edited confessions by two killers, one of them the much-publicized Central Park "preppy killer" Robert Chambers. His victim's last name, thank heaven, wasn't used but the technique of the show gave the cheeseball game away. Any vague shadow of a pretense of high-mindedness went out the window as soon as you watched the show, which was cheesey exploitation designed to follow "Cops" in a time period.

It was razzled and dazzled up with split screens, simulations, background music, cutaways from the confessions that were so arbitrary they were dramatically inept. By comparison, "Cops" was the epitome of high-domed TV verite.

Presented dead on without the souping up, "Confessions" might have had an ethical leg to stand on. As it was, it was just junk with clever PR. After Chambers' confession, we could watch the wracked, tearful, horrible confession of an unemployed man who choked and stabbed his mother to death even though he thought it was just "her and me against the world."

The extremity of his suffering just made this bit of "reality TV" look even cheaper, uglier and more vicious than it already did (which was cheap, ugly and vicious enough). Never before have the interrogations on "NYPD Blue" looked more like Dostoevsky in comparison.

There ought to be an expose in Brill's Content, I tell you.