Reality TV puts spin on notion of `heroes'

Previews: Just what are `Lost' and `The Amazing Race' trying to prove?

September 05, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you thought the new fall season would offer escape from the seemingly bottomless muck of reality programming, I come before you to say: Surrender hope, all ye who enter the land of network TV.

NBC and CBS debut two new and very similar reality series tonight, Lost at 8 on NBC, and The Amazing Race at 9 on CBS. Both have two-person teams of contestants, most of whom fall somewhere between self-absorbed and outright exhibitionist, racing around the planet for expensive prizes.

We've seen most of the types before: the model or former beauty queen in a cowboy hat and bare midriff who strikes a pose with every step, no matter how hot or sticky the weather; the gay characters who allow the producers to define them almost exclusively in terms of their homosexuality; and the good-looking former high school stud at 30 who thinks his performance on the program is going to make up for his accomplishing so little since graduation.

And, yet, for all their predictability and exploitation, Lost and Amazing Race have something important to tell us about the generation of American young people coming of age today. It's something that will be readily apparent to those who watch these series tonight, and then on Sunday view HBO's Band of Brothers miniseries about the journey taken by a group of young men during World War II, who engaged in a contest with Hitler's death machine and didn't get a wad of cash for their efforts.

Lost features three couples dropped into a remote spot with limited resources. The first pair to make it to the Statue of Liberty get $200,000 and two SUVs. As the hyped-up narration puts it at the start of the program: "Six American dropped somewhere on the planet ... Lost is going to be a test of the human spirit."

Right.

The narration breaks for one contestant, Carla, who says: "I'm alone. I'm scared. And I don't know where the hell I am."

Carla, you didn't know where the hell you were before the game started. Carla, by the way, hates Celeste, the blond former beauty queen. They are on opposing teams, and the feeling is mutual. They both wear cowboy hats, pose, whine, lie to everyone and say catty things about each other. This is the level at which Lost mainly plays.

As for the contestants being so frighteningly alone, well, there is the camera person who accompanies each team. And, surprise, surprise, each team also has a satellite phone that we find out about half way through the hour. ET, call home.

Of the two, The Amazing Race is the more interesting. It has 11 couples starting in Central Park in the same sort of sprint around the world with "no credit cards or cell phones," as the breathless narration puts it. The grand prize here is $1 million for the winning team.

And rather than making teams of strangers, as Lost does, the pairs here include: a mother and daughter, a separated husband and wife, two lawyers who work together and are best friends, and two men who are life partners.

The life partners wear matching outfits - a different one each day of the journey - much to the irritation of a Mr. Macho type who keeps finishing behind them in each leg of tonight's competition. The macho guy is paired with his estranged wife. In tonight's episode, he all but throws her off a cliff in a bungee jump while trying to catch up with the frontrunners. Gee, I wonder why this couple broke up.

I wish I could say this is just silliness, but the Statue of Liberty finish line, the cowboy hats worn by contestants as they trek across a windswept plain, and the little American flags the Lost contestants give to people they meet in other countries tell us something:

These games are manufactured re-enactments of great American journeys. Turn-of-the-century immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island, the taming of the western frontier by settlers and cowpokes, and the campaigns in Europe and Asia to fight Germany and Japan - these are the struggles being echoed in TV games. They create the illusion that a new generation is being tested to see if they have the same right stuff as their parents and grandparents.

You can make your own judgment of that in terms of good and bad. I think it suggests that as a nation, we are sadly enthralled by flickering video images of our diminished greatness, rather than any real heroism. We are a nation without a national purpose.

Premieres

What: Lost

When: 8 tonight

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: Coming to America, the Reality Show.

What: The Amazing Race

When: 9 tonight

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: Around the World in Prime Time, the Reality Show.

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