Fox's anti-intellectual bash
November 15, 2004
I am pretty sick of reality TV at this point. The first season of Survivor was novel and compelling enough to have me hooked, and last year's The Apprentice put an elegant New York City twist on it, but this is just ridiculous.
I am talking, of course, about the premiere last Sunday of My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss (hereinafter known as MBFOB). The fact that, after only a handful of seasons, reality TV is already parodying itself is a bad sign for the continuation of the genre, but it's the nature of this particular parody that I find telling.
The show is set up like The Apprentice: 12 competent young business people take part in "business-oriented" challenges and the ones that perform the worst get kicked off. The last man standing, presumably the best business person, wins a high-paying job at an investment banking firm.
The contestants were culled from the top echelon of the business world: smart, successful young people who are still moving up the ladder. The ads billed them as a group of ivy league graduates. Their taglines during interviews identify them as executives and owners of their own businesses. They have been brought on this show because they possess the qualities -- intelligence, entrepreneurship, and a top-flight education -- that make them successful in the private sector.
But MBFOB is not just an Apprentice knockoff. This show is a hoax show: the boss is not a real business person, the challenges are not really about making good business decisions, and the winner isn't chosen because of his competence. Instead, the boss is an actor, the challenges are designed to make these people look foolish, and the winner is chosen seemingly at random. The crew and the audience are in on the game; the only people without a clue are the contestants.
The show is set up this way to make smart people look stupid. All of MBFOB's entertainment value derives from watching intelligent, accomplished young people making fools of themselves. The more people in the audience who watch this and think "teehee, that ivy league graduate sure looks dumb now," the happier the Fox executives are.
For example, the first challenge the contestants had to take part in was, drum roll please: begging. That's right, 12 successful businesspeople rubbed dirt on their faces, put on rags, took up cardboard signs, and begged on street corners. The task was framed in a "starting from the ground up" sort of way, much like selling lemonade, but in actuality begging was the challenge of choice because it offered the maximum foolishness quotient.
Frankly, it was embarrassing. These people truly believed that they were supposed to make money out of nothing, but with careful editing and narration from the show's host, the audience was treated to the reality TV equivalent of public humiliation.
"Here are these guys from the finance world, completely committed to begging for money," the host says. Later, as a female executive break danced for a dollar, the derisive narrative chuckles: "She's an ivy leaguer ... and there she is, break dancing on the corner."
This show isn't like other hoax shows, such as Joe Millionaire, where women compete for the love of a man they are lead to believe is worth millions. The main difference is in the choice of contestants; all of the players on MBFOB are smart and successful, while those on other shows come from all walks of life. This targeted ridicule, where the point of the show is to laugh at well-educated people, is illustrative of a dynamic in America that ranges far beyond the borders of the Fox Sunday night line up.
Capitalism is founded, in essence, on the idea that some people will succeed and the rest will have sh***y jobs. That's just the reality of the system, and in today's complex world, education is the most accurate indicator of where a person will end up on the spectrum. But it doesn't mean that less successful people have to like it. In fact, if you've ever taken a modern political philosophy class, you probably learned that they aren't supposed to like it.
Dissatisfaction with the ruling class is expressed in many ways. In the mid 1600s, it was bread riots in England. In the 1920s and 30s, it was strikes in Chicago and cartoons in France. In the 21st century, apparently it's reality TV that makes fools of ex-ivy leaguers.
At its core then, MBFOB is an expression of frustration with the capitalist system. It taps into the anger that is a natural byproduct of our economy. While Marx would eagerly point to this show as the first rumblings of the earthquake of class revolution, the notion that MBFOB will cause any type of major shift in our society is more than a little ridiculous. Instead, it should serve as a reminder that all is not peachy-keen in our country, and as the too-easily-mockable leaders of tomorrow, it is going to be our jobs to fix it.
And to do that, we're going to have to do more than breakdance on the corner.