Contestants on Fox's `The Chamber' aren't its only victims

January 24, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

I HAVE JUST seen the dumbest TV show in history, a sordid, putrid mess that makes dwarf-tossing look sophisticated.

I have seen grown men and women willingly degrade themselves in front of a howling studio audience as they slosh about in the slimy underbelly of modern American entertainment.

I have seen The Chamber.

Now the only question is: How much brain damage have I suffered? (A quick guess: Lots.)

If you aren't familiar with The Chamber - and this would be a good thing - it's Fox's latest entry in the category of "alternative programming, " that unholy mix of "reality" show and "game" show where contestants try to win money by doing disgusting, dangerous or stupid things.

In this case, "stupid" is the operative word.

Believe me, The Chamber makes Temptation Island look like It's Academic.

So naturally, it drew 10 million viewers the first time it aired in a "special series preview." And 8 million the next time it previewed. Proving that some people will watch anything and that you could probably get boffo Nielsen ratings with a show about a bulldozer backing up over someone's foot.

In a nutshell - and you'd have to be nuts to watch this a second time - the show works like this: Contestants are strapped into a forbidding-looking chamber that looks like something from the Jeffrey Dahmer Collection.

Then they're subjected to 150-degree heat and shooting flames or cold down to 20 degrees below zero and freezing blasts of water in their faces.

Oh, did I mention the electrodes?

I should mention them.

While all this is going on, electrodes attached to the contestant's muscles are causing uncomfortable contractions.

And the chair - we should probably mention that, too.

The whole time, the chair is shaking with the force of an earthquake registering 9.0 on the Richter scale.

And while all this is going on, the contestant is supposed to answer questions, each worth a thousand bucks.

You think I'm kidding.

I only wish I were.

When you watch something this horrible and find out it drew 18 million viewers and made scads of cash for Fox, your first reaction, as a sentient being, is to say: How can I get in on that?

But your second reaction is: Who thinks up this stuff? And how is it that he or she isn't in a locked ward somewhere?

So yesterday I called Los Angeles and spoke to Mike Darnell, Fox's executive vice president for alternative programming and one of the show's creators. He also was the creative force behind Temptation Island, When Good Pets Go Bad and Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?(He's also being sued by the creator of ABC's The Chair, who finds The Chamber a little too similar. Oh, yeah, The Chair is a classy show, too. Contestants are hooked up to a heart monitor and answer questions while such common distractions as, oh, fireworks and dangling alligators are trotted out.

Anyway, Darnell, 39, modestly said he came up with the idea for The Chamber in a "collaboration" with others from Dick Clark Productions, which begs the question: When did Dick Clark go insane?

Darnell said he was a big fan of NBC's Fear Factor, the hyper-reality show in which contestants confront their fears for big bucks. A woman who's terrified of rodents, for instance, might be placed in a box with mice running all over her.

The Chamber, said Darnell, "is `Fear Factor-ish' in a sense" as contestants push past their fears and pain thresholds.

The "visceral reaction" of the contestants to their stressful surroundings - this would apparently include any panicky screams or moans or gasps of pain - is what makes the show "spectacular," he said.

Oh, I said.

"You can say it's 140 degrees, but it's hard to experience it until you actually see someone experience it," said Darnell.

Darnell said six episodes of The Chamber have already been shot (it officially premieres tomorrow night at 8). If it continues to draw a large audience, the show will stay on.

Thus far, Darnell said, reaction to the show has been mixed.

Uh, mixed? I said.

"I haven't read a lot of critical stuff," he continued. "[The TV critics] seem to like it, or at least appreciate it. They seem to like it a little better than the [TV] audience. The audience has a visceral reaction to it. Some love it. Some can't stand it. Some say it's an abomination."

Me, I go with door No. 3 on that one.

But apparently abominations do pretty well in the ratings these days.

In fact, ensuring that The Chamber continues to be an abomination, Darnell said he and his staff are tinkering with ways to make the show even crazier.

Yeah? Like how? I asked.

"Oh, an animal chamber, a bug chamber, a dizzy chamber, maybe something with water," he said.

Something with water? I said. Where the chair plunges into a pool or something?

"We haven't really worked it all out yet," said Darnell.

Well, OK. But a near-drowning, that's got "ratings-grabber" written all over it.

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