Humiliation America

January 18, 2003

IN TV's good old days - roughly a million years ago - the original Candid Camera relied on such innocent but hilarious pranks as talking mailboxes to dupe the unsuspecting, much to our entertainment. Today's version of the show goes for the laughs by inducing an air traveler to lie down and pass through a security X-ray machine - from which he emerged bruised, bloody and litigious.

One of early TV's landmark game shows, Beat the Clock, had contestants competing under time pressure in various stunts, usually, it seemed, involving pingpong balls and water. Today's stunt shows, such as Fear Factor, are more apt to have competitors handling electricity and water - or simply sticking their heads in a vat of snakes. Now that's entertainment.

The original version of The Beverly Hillbillies was hardly high art, but the sitcom - about suddenly rich country folk living among California's swells - turned on the commoners' tried-and-true virtues trumping the obvious flaws of the more sophisticated. The show's update, still in planning, would plop a real low-income family down in a Beverly Hills hotel. Guess who's coming to dinner - and who'll be the butt of endless jokes.

Yes, of course, we date ourselves with these contrasts, by memories and values. But there are few barometers of American culture more unerring than commercially successful TV, posing the question of what the growing success of such "reality-based" shows says about this society these days.

One answer is ancient and obvious: Sex, even the suggestion of it, sells. But beyond that, cruel mockery - taking pleasure at others' misfortunes - now comes in a close second. There seems no greater fun than another's pain, particularly if it's emotional. That's an unfortunate but understandable social norm at, say, middle-school lunch tables. But it's now a national sport.

Sure, there's not all that much reason to feel sorry for many who have signed on to one form of humiliation or another. They seem desperate to be on TV - either as a career move or as affirmation. What's our excuse for participating?

Take all those dating shows now proliferating in a sex-and-mockery arms race. There was The Bachelor of course, then The Bachelorette, and Joe Millionaire.

The first gave us on-camera rejection with real tears. The next is providing symmetry, putting the first show's humiliated runner-up in the driver's seat, where she now has the opportunity to toy, rather than be toyed with. And Joe Millionaire adds a special twist - deceit - in having 20 aspiring but clueless young women compete for a supposed millionaire who's really a part-time underwear model and construction worker. That show's debut Jan. 6 was the highest-rated series premier this season with the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

We suppose the best that can be said here is that truth is stranger than fiction. But this voyeurism is hardly real. We don't look as good as most of the contestants. Their relationships are as real as one-night stands, their issues as deep as those at the previously cited middle-school lunch table.

Stay tuned. We may exhaust the possibilities for humiliation at the core of High School Reunion, which has brought together 17 classmates a decade after graduation. But more of these low-cost, potentially high-income shows are headed our way, including more of, surely among the most degrading, Extreme Makeover, in which contestants receive extensive plastic surgeries.

And when we've grown weary of that sport, remember that something called the Pax Network has brought back Beat the Clock. Call us old fogies, but we can't get enough of pingpong balls and water.

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