Trivial Pursuits 

The games people play and why people watch.

Shooting People:

Adventures in Reality TV

By Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen

Verso, 178 pp., $21

It's called reality TV. Salman Rushdie calls it "the unashamed self-display of the talentless" -- "half-familiar avatars of yourself ... enacting ordinary life under weird conditions."

Rushdie, however, may be underestimating the degree of talentlessness and restricting the definitions of "ordinary" and "weird," because he is obviously unfamiliar with Susun! Denpa Shonen, a Japanese "endurance game show" broadcast in 1998-99, a show whose title roughly translates as "Don't Go For It, Electric Boy!" and a show that for some reason has yet to make it to these shores. Repeat, yet.

In that program, according to authors Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen, an actor "consented to be locked alone in a small apartment until he was able to win one million yen in cash or goods from magazine competitions [?], and was allowed to survive only on the proceeds of his winnings. He slowly disintegrated over the period of his internment, and took to pacing naked, muttering. His hair grew unkempt, then wild, and a beard of sorts emerged. Among the prizes he succeeded in winning was a large consignment of dog food, which he ate, sticking strictly to the parameters of the game. Finally, a producer entered the apartment and led him into a small anteroom, the walls of which promptly fell before a gleeful studio audience, his 'apartment' beside him revealed as a set construction. He had been in there for fifteen months, unaware that he was even being filmed and that each week his exploits were winning Japan's largest TV audience."

Fans of Survivor, Big Brother, Temptation Island ("Survivor with a dating/infidelity twist"), The Mole ("Survivor with paramilitary adventure-chic"), Eden ("Big Brother for teens, with added audience interactivity"), Shipwrecked ("Survivor for teens"), The Amazing Race ("Survivor, cross-country, against the clock"), Fear Factor ("Survivor challenges with extreme sports twist"), Cruel Winter ("Fear Factor mixed with Big Brother, for the kids"), Road Rules ("The Amazing Race with teens in cars"), Lost ("The Amazing Race" again), Love Cruise ("Big Brother and Survivor on a boat"), Castaway ("Survivor in the cold, without the challenges"), in addition to Murder in Small Town X, Chained, The Chair ("fascist-chic"), The Chamber (more "fascist-chic"), and I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! (no comment), eat your hearts out. Nonfans of reality TV in general (all half-dozen of you worldwide, plus Salman Rushdie), take comfort: Brenton and Cohen's Shooting People is here to dig quickly but deep into what the hell's going on and likely to get worse. (Coming soon? The Tenth Victim at last for real?) And what's really so wrong?

For one, the documentary style and civic goals of such filmmakers as John Grierson in England in the early 20th century bit the dust. (Except inside art-house theaters and on college campuses, what's left to preach to the like-minded leftists already in the audience?) The camera, once thought so objective a tool in the hands of social reformers, was then suddenly, by mid-century, believed to be nothing of the sort. So "direct cinema" (the "fly-on-the-wall" approach of Frederick Wiseman) and "cinéma-vérité" (of D.A. Pennebaker) got in the act in the 1960s, but even they were eventually judged too intrusive, too phony. So the '60s itself got in the act, with self-actualization not only in the air but infecting "functionally cretinous schools of psychological healing."

"To have suffered, experienced, 'been through' things, [became] the foundation of real knowledge," write Brenton and Cohen, and the "dandruff of selfhood [was] elevated to the status of a worthy subject" -- thus, "no aspect of personal experience [was] too small to fix a camera on." Thus, in America you got PBS' An American Family. Thus, in England, the once-venerable Channel 4, "the spiritual home of serious documentary," after deregulation, fell into the hands of (according to one former producer and Emmy winner) "a bunch of bloody twelve-year-olds." ("Snot-nosed bastards," Oxbridge-educated even so, the same source adds, to clarify.)

Then "docusoaps" entered England in the '90s. Then MTV's The Real World and Cops entered America. Then Charlie Parsons and his partners ("the kings of trash TV") at Planet 24 in England hit on an idea that became Survivor, which was deemed too stupid even for England. So Sweden produced Expedition Robinson, and Sinisa Savija, a Bosnian refugee and the first person to be evicted from the island setting of the new game show, threw himself under a train in 1997. The reason: "They were going to cut away the good things I did and make me look like a fool, only to show I was the worst, and that I was the one that had to go." Translation: Savija was a goner but ratings skyrocketed. Translation: Survivor went global. And with no small thanks to a Dutch company called Endemol, which markets this stuff big-time, we've now got what's called "delivery platforms," and hard-core viewers get to watch live-stream Big Brother contestants sleeping in real time. (Never heard of "delivery platforms"? Get with the program. Never heard of Endemol? It's that company whose new logo looks like "a blob of dough that's been used as an ashtray.")

You'd think the psychology profession would be up in arms over all this. A few psychologists are. In fact, they're into it up to their necks -- in consulting contracts with the producers of these shows, acting as "safeguards" to protect contestants' welfare, weeding out the full lunatics so America doesn't have a Sinisa Savija upsetting everybody.

But what can you expect? Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University and the mastermind behind something called the Stanford County Prison Experiment in 1971 (the prison was fake; the brutality was not), was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 2001: So, so long codes of professional conduct, questions of ethics.

Dr. Kate Wachs (America Online's own "Dr. Kate") is especially eloquent on the subject of the healthy, helpful human truths revealed to the billions glued to this garbage: "Finding the compelling nature of something, distilling it, and giving it back to ourselves in a compelling form is our nature. It's like turning grapes into wine or cocaine into crack [the authors' emphasis]." So the authors add: "An unfortunate metaphor -- an earlier narcotic is distilled and transformed into a cheaper, more addictive, and destructive substance." But that's reality for you when it's also mindless TV, when it's also mindless psychologizing, and when the former president of the APA calls Candid Camera a "model of how to convert the psychology of live situationist experiments into entertaining, yet illuminating television."

A word or two by Brenton and Cohen on Jerry Springer et al., on ElimiDATE et al., and on those classy, role-playing games cooked up for the PBS set (see the recent Manor House) wouldn't have hurt Shooting People one bit. Plus, what's really with this bottomless taste of ours for witnessing humiliation? Is it the real mark of a 12-year-old mind or is it the resting place where we're all most comfy? Must be in "our nature." See Dr. Kate.

But here's the last word and it isn't Brenton and Cohen's. It's out of the mouth of the trashman himself, Charlie Parsons, who put it fair and square, for real for once: "No one knows what the fuck is going on with TV."

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