mr. grant’s rant: don’t be cruel

This new genre are no longer game shows. The actual game part of these programs is a very minor sub-plot to the actual administration of punishment...”



I tend to attach myself to a view debated over steaks at a decadent LA supper by two colorful characters in Jim Harrison’s novella ‘Westward Ho’ wherein an aspiring young artist named Sharon postulates that “the media, in toto, [is] in reality the main weapon of mass destruction in the world.”  Truth be told my most disparaging sentiments are saved for the corpulent dishes served up on television. A dollop of network tv programming is a surefire way to further a crumbling faith in humanity.  Right up there with a dumpster fire on the engagement scale – there is possible enjoyment to be had in pursuit of it’s fleeting charms, but the price you pay for your low-brow appetites is both painful and embarrassing.

Case in point:

An email arrives at Smokebox pointing out an obvious flaw in some flow of logic in an earlier rant: “Mr. Grant…” the letter starts, “…how come you tee-off on television shows so often? By your own admission you don’t watch it.  Maybe you should leave the television critiques to folks who actually WATCH a lot of television?  Just a thought”

The passionate television advocate does have a valid point here.  So, in light of his challenge I bit the bullet and treated myself to a few nights of lazy vegetation in front of the cathode narcotic. I basked in the warm glow of episodes of Elimidate, Fear Factor, and Blind Date.

My what I’ve been missing.

But the show that really stuck it to me was The Chamber — a new show featuring a diabolical device wherein largely despicable contestants are sealed in a flashing, fog-farting box and systematically tortured while trying to answer painfully stupid questions. You had to know this was coming with last year’s moron-infested Fear Factor proving once and for all that viewers can never get enough footage of other folks suffering through protracted anguish, excruciating pain and utter degradation. In The Chamber, the contestants successfully answer queries about important situation comedy characters, and properly identify fast food slogans, only to see the intensity of the torture exponentially increase. This unfolds much to the delight of the savages populating the live studio audience.  I’ve always wondered if there was anything that humans wouldn’t subject themselves to for money.  The Chamber would seem to indicate that there isn’t. What will you subject yourself to for a buck? Is your ego so big you’ll let some network marketing “expert” braise your flesh over tongues of orange flame, or shoot pressured jets of ice-water into your ear canals for the sake of prime time ratings?

It’s revolutionary really. I can’t recall a game show where you actively root for the contestant to get roasted alive or flash-frozen like a goddamn blueberry. I was riveted to my couch as an unfortunate victim saw his afro slowly turn into a block of glacial ice as his body convulsed from the electrical shocks the ill-disposed Chamber was administering. There was an icicle goatee hanging off his chin that didn’t seem entirely natural either….

It suddenly occurs that I’ve had it all wrong. There’s a perfect symmetry in The Chamber and the multitude of other programs involving the torture of contestants. A balance that can only come from the exhilaration experienced when an assortment of synaptically mis-firing he-men and bitchy beach queens cook in their own foul juices before our very eyes. It must be an unwritten rule that to qualify as a contestant on these “programs” a person needs to have a single digit IQ, communicate in a vapid and prefarbly, nasty manner, and be a certifiably loose cannon. It makes processing their anguish that much easier, and far more enjoyable.

It’s wickedly entertaining (for all the wrong reasons of course). We’re a pack of fleshy, drooling wolves descending on a fresh kill. Perhaps our delight in the torture and humiliation of others is actually a barely suppressed primitive urge — so why even bother fighting it?

The success of this sort of spectacle just reinforces the growing suspicion that guilty pleasures aside, we have collectively devolved into a nasty lot at heart. Of more concern is that this new run of torture programming virtually *assures* us better and more humiliating devices of torture in the future. I can already see the Torture Channel (dedicated to the debasement of all things human) on a digital cable network near you.

(24 hours of The Chamber, The Chair, The Rack, The Pit, The Hole…)

Through the canned fog see Fox’s ultimate gambit: The Dentist — where contestants get anesthetic-free root canals from game show host Crispin Glover for incorrect answers. In a clever strategic maneuver Glover will drop a large cockroach down the front of the squealing contestant’s underpants. If the unfortunate soul’s heart rates exceed normal resting rate during a routine cleaning, they get a molar drilled on live TV! Think of the ratings! It works on so many levels!

My god, the possibilities are endless and horrifying. Laugh now, but mark my words; these shows are just around the corner.

This new genre are no longer game shows. The actual “game” part of these programs is a very minor sub-plot to the actual administration of punishment. They’ve evolved into a strange species of spectacle akin to public executions or the horrific dramas that unfolded in between the stone arches of the Roman Coliseum. Things that Mike Meyers and Chris Farley used to lampoon on Saturday Night Live as absurdity is becoming reality before our very eyes.

Still in my case The Chamber worked better than a scream therapy session. Rooting for the suffering of people, who are actual physical representations of the deterioration of a basic thread of common decency, was an unexpected epiphany. I was giggling as they cooked and froze. Laughing as they grimaced and retched. That’ll teach you stupid greedy fuckers to sell your souls for a dollar’s worth of infamy.  I was feeling mean, ripples of contempt coursing through my veins like a high-grade narcotic. Suddenly it all made perfect sense….

…which is exactly why I won’t be returning to The Chamber, or any of its ilk again. This world is plenty cruel enough as it is already thank you very much. 

And lest you think this assault is limited to television, try picking up even an “entertainment” magazine from the local supermarket sometime. Malicious gossip wedged between pages devoted to famous dignitaries who offer disparaging comments about people’s bodies, mates and clothing selections. Talk radio in most of its current manifestations is a endless litany of cruel premises hosted increasingly by calculated, mean-spirited misanthropes.  Our Internet message boards and comment sections are filled with vicious, hateful exchanges. 

Racing full throttle down this road is going land us somewhere ugly, ignorant and miserable.

A grade school science teacher told us once that given their choice pigs are very clean animals. But if you fill their pens with feces, offal and mud, they’re more than happy to roll around in it.

“Why don’t the farmers keep their pens clean then,” a classmate queried.

“Because it’s expensive, and time consuming, and the hogs don’t care.”

Unlike the poor swine, we have a choice in these matters. The phenomenon of wallowing in our own ruthlessness does seem to be a thread worthy of scrutiny. If you think about it, the current spate of torture programming is merely another in a long line of cultural steps in reverse. There was a time when such indignities would have not been tolerated, or even discussed as “entertainment.” The secret to shows like The Chamber is that they are easily digestible, require no effort of any sort to absorb, and fill our seemingly insatiable appetite for cruelty. It’s a perverse sort enjoyment that we collectively seem awash in — the humiliation of others somehow makes us feel better about ourselves. The race for the lowest, cheapest common denominator may be a successful monetary strategy, but it does seem to leave out any sort of hope for the future of what passes for cultural decency in contemporary media.

Perhaps it is foolish to hope that a profit-driven medium with the cultural impact of television display some degree of common sense when it comes to basic human decency. But then, taste and morality is a fleeting and seemingly subjective principle. Sadly in these times too many people find great entertainment in treating each other like piles of dog shit.

Until next month…watch where you step.


Originally published:
Issue Seventeen
February 2002



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