Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the wake of Sept. 11, two things were certain: Irony was dead and reality television passé. After suffering through so much real destruction, surely TV audiences would want no part of contrived competition and trumped-up hardship. Kinder, gentler viewers would seek comfort in the bosom of their families, gumming their Chee-tos while watching TV bloopers from a quarter century ago.

Four months later, such predictions look overly optimistic. Indeed, if irony actually were dead, we would need to resurrect it in order to cope with the prospect of Fox’s The Chamber and ABC’s The Chair emerging as the hits of both networks’ pathetic seasons. With their strapped-down contestants, tongues of flame and monitored heartbeats, both concepts resemble Trivial Pursuit as it might be conceived by Josef Mengele. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is torture as entertainment, with contestants challenged to answer questions while being frozen, roasted or otherwise tormented. It’s enough to make one plead with ABC to bring back The Runner.

There’s been some debate about whether these programs qualify as game shows or reality TV, but such distinctions miss the point. These shows are part of a larger trend that might be labeled masochistic TV. The masochists are, of course, the contestants: an endless supply of everyday folk who, unlike the slaves and captives who were forced to entertain Rome in the Coliseum, cheerfully submit to gross, humiliating stunts.

As “alternative programming” continues to evolve, the masochism quotient only increases. On the game-show side, the unctuously affable Regis Philbin was trumped by The Weakest Link’s Anne Robinson, who administers verbal canings to her sheepishly grinning dunces. On the reality side, Fear Factor skipped the tribal mumbo jumbo of Survivor and went straight for the bug eating. The Chamber and, to a lesser extent, The Chair take the torture implicit in these formats and make it strap-’em-down and wire-’em-up explicit.

Every masochist needs a sadist, and the TV audience is happy to oblige. In the early ’60s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a notorious post-Nazi experiment, testing the capacity of ordinary, decent people to inflict torture on others. The results showed that a majority of people, if sanctioned by some authority to do so, were perfectly willing to twist the shock-inflicting knob to the danger zone. What happened in the lab holds true at home, where the only knob that needs turning is the TV dial.

Lacking much of the discomfort-inducing hardware of The Chamber, the more benign Chair is counting on the intimidation skills of famed tantrum-thrower John Mc Enroe to literally make contestants’ hearts skip a beat. Stripped of his racquet, the charmless McEnroe is about as intimidating as Mr. Rogers, and the only victim of his tortured attempts at banter is the audience at home.

But at least The Chair, unlike its doppelgänger, actually tests a skill: a capacity to remain calm under stress. The ability of one premiere-episode contestant, an ex-cop and judo aficionada, to seemingly lower her heart rate at will in the face of a flying alligator was remarkable, if less than viscerally thrilling. Alas, she was disqualified when she misidentified a Bruce Springsteen song.

While the creators of these shows have wired their contestants’ hearts, they have completely given up on their brains. Remember when quiz shows actually tested knowledge? These days the advantage goes to those who practice yoga and watch lots of commercials. For example, to qualify for a sojourn in the feared Chamber, two players were asked to name the top 10 car-rental companies. (The people at Hertz will be dispirited to know that their brand was the last to be cited—and did not occur at all to one contestant.) But when the questions veer from learning gained during commercial breaks, these poor ignoramuses are helpless. My personal favorites were the contestant who thought a Dr. Seuss title was a work by Shakespeare and the Harvard graduate who named Nevada as a state which borders an ocean. (Grade inflation at Harvard is obviously worse than we thought.)

I may be one of those post-Sept. 11 wishful thinkers. But I think these shows—with ratings around 5, they’re hardly blockbusters—will fade so fast that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s run will look like Cats by comparison. For one thing, the introductory rigmarole about “arterial pressure” and “resting heart rates” gets tired really fast. And once you’ve seen one contestant’s skull frost over, you’ve kind of seen them all. At least we can hope so.