Forget the Sex and Violence; Shame Is the Ratings Leader Wed Nov 20, 8:59 AM ET
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY The New York Times
The appeal of "The Bachelor" for women is hardly a mystery. This gauzy ABC dating competition is "Jackass" for women: a reality show that revels in emotional risk taking and rejection in the same way that "Jackass," the MTV series, celebrates men's foolhardiness and physical pain.
More than sex, more than violence, humiliation is the unifying principle behind a successful reality show, be it "The Real World," "Survivor," "Fear Factor" or "The Bachelor."
And there is much more ahead, from "The Will," an ABC reality show in which contestants compete for an inheritance, to "Exhausted," a Fox game show based on sleep deprivation. HBO is now hoping to top its rivals with a reality show as only HBO could do it: "Cathouse," which will be shown next month, put hidden cameras in a Nevada brothel. Viewers have shown an insatiable appetite for the queasy thrill that comes from watching an ordinary person suffer searing public embarrassment in exchange for 15 minutes of fame.
"Cathouse" proves, even more than "The Bachelor," that ordinary people want to be on television even if it means 15 minutes of shame.
Tonight, on the finale of "The Bachelor," Aaron chooses between the golden-haired ingénue Brooke and the sophisticated brunette Helene, who was cast as the brainy contestant. (In the land of the blond, the dark-eyed one is queen.) The ratings are expected to be among the highest of the year on any network.
ABC hopes to score again early next year with a distaff version: a Bachelorette will choose among 25 eligible men, but that does not have the same kick to it. Not, as the show's producers fret with ill-concealed glee, because viewers will brand her a slut for canoodling with several suitors, but because the sight of men competing over a woman is more accepted.
In our culture, there is still nothing particularly humiliating about a man pursuing unrequited love, but there is almost always something faintly ridiculous about a woman trying too hard. Cyrano de Bergerac was noble. Christi, the weepy, injured reject on "The Bachelor" (she is known on the show as the "Fatal Attraction" candidate) was closer to Charlotte Haze, the mother in Nabokov's "Lolita."
Which is why the most logical heir to Bachelor II is not "The Bachelorette," but the documentary-style "Cathouse." In matters of sex, there is at least one act that is still considered shameful: paying for it. Yet the very ordinary clients who were secretly videotaped range from a husband and wife who each wanted their own separate session with a hooker to a 22-year-old virgin whose mother sat in on the negotiations. "One thousand dollars?" she exclaimed as if negotiating the price of his first Brooks Brothers suit. "You owe me!"
The hidden cameras show a lot of negotiation, nervous laughter and explicit fondling, but cut away before any X-rated sexual act is performed. (Sometimes the camera pans to the row of egg timers ticking in the madam's office to keep track of each client.) Astonishingly, almost all the clients signed consent forms. (Three of 50 declined.) It turns out that in most people there is quite a lot of Suzanne Stone, the would-be television personality played by Nicole Kidman in the 1995 movie "To Die For," who memorably asked, "What's the point in doing something good if nobody's watching?"
"Cathouse," is scheduled to be shown on Dec. 8, right after the season finale of "The Sopranos" and in time for the holiday season.
Yes, Virginia, there is a "Fear Factor" Christmas. Joe Rogan, the host of NBC's "Fear Factor" reality show, will team up with Brooke Burns, host of "Dog Eat Dog," for "The Blockbuster Hollywood Christmas Spectacular." On Dec. 8 the Blockbuster video chain and NBC are blending traditional coverage of the Hollywood Christmas Parade with scenes of explosions and other noisy special effects from movies.
Like genetically modified foods, reality shows are ingenious and a little scary. You never know what form they will take next. ABC is working on "Are You Hot?" an "American Idol"-like competition that dispenses with a talent requirement and asks viewers to vote who is the sexiest-looking contestant. A cradle-to-grave network, ABC is also working on "The Will," in which family members compete to be named the heir to a relative's estate.
The success of "The Osbournes" on MTV has created a demand for reality comedies. CBS producers are currently searching the hinterlands for the right bumpkin family to cast as "The Real Beverly Hillbillies." Fox is developing a "Green Acres" version, with an affluent family or, better yet, a celebrity, willing to trade the stores for the chores, who is plunked down in a rural wasteland.
Then there is reality tragedy. Fox is also developing "Exhausted," a game-show version of Depression-era dance marathons, as depicted in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" Contestants will be kept sleepless for 24 hours, then made to compete in a variety of games and contests for another 24. When only two finalists are left standing, they are seated in cozy armchairs. The first to fall asleep loses.
Consensual humiliation is one thing. Unconscious humiliation is a whole other subgenre that has been popular since "Candid Camera" began in 1949. In the summer of 2001 NBC introduced Extreme Candid Camera: "Spy TV," which combined good, clean fun with the cruelty experiments usually associated with Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist whose research on torture at Yale University in the early 60's shed new light on how ordinary people will instinctively obey orders.
In one skit, aspiring fashion models in bikinis were told to pose covered in snakes and holding live roaches in their mouths. In another, an immigrant pizza delivery man, tricked into thinking he was witnessing surgery in a motel room, was so appalled he crashed through a glass window to escape.
Shows that stick to more benign pranks, and that includes a revival of "Candid Camera" (back on the air on the Pax network since 2001, starring Peter Funt, the son of the show's creator, Allen Funt), have dismal ratings, suggesting that viewers prefer their humiliation served raw.
"Oblivious," on TNN, is a kindly hidden-camera game show with cruel ratings. The host, Regan Burns, disguises himself as a waiter, crossing guard or bartender and devises ways to ask five questions of an unsuspecting customer, who wins $20 for each correct answer. The comedy rests less on the ignorance of unwitting contestants than on Mr. Burns's ability to dupe strangers.
"The Jamie Kennedy Experiment" on the WB network takes that duplicity even further. Mr. Kennedy, a comedian who specializes in characters, uses his impersonations to sting people; one of his more amusing personas is that of a white Beverly Hills rapper, an Eminem 90210. There is collusion between the producers and their subjects. A student invites her mother and sister to lunch to meet her new fiancé, and by the time he explains he wants her to drop out of college to support his hip-hop career, the mother storms out.
The inability of those two shows to gain a broad audience doesn't bode well for a charming comedy-reality show, "Who Needs Hollywood?," directed by Shanda Sawyer, that will debut on the Oxygen cable channel on Nov. 27. In it Katie Putrick, the host and a co-producer, travels around the country coaxing ordinary people to put on performances.
In one hourlong episode, she and a flamboyant choreographer, Marvin Thornton, travel to the Raleigh Hotel, one of the last remaining Catskills resorts, to see if they can persuade the aging employees and guests to stage a variety show à la "Dirty Dancing."
The hotel staff and clientele are Borscht Belt old, and Borscht Belt cranky. The show, which reveals the sad, rumpled end of an era, could seem cruel. But some staff members do finally agree to perform, as do some dangerously elderly guests, and the end result is sweet, not humiliating.
The headwaiter is a holdout. "Take those cameras out of my dining room, customers have complained," he instructs Ms. Putrick, who resorts to hiding a minicamera in a skullcap worn by the choreographer. (They call it "the yarmulke cam.")
In the Catskills, at least, there are a few people who will not appear on television at any price, particularly if it interferes with lunch.