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Beast of the Month - March 2003
Bumfights & Reality Television from Hell, Sleazy Appetite for Distraction Fad
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (From the album Nevermind)
Osama bin Laden, when referring to the American people in a taped October 2001 speech, said the following: "The least that can be said about those people is that they are debauched." Say what you will about Osama, but he sure has us pegged.
Of course, few even then could imagine the depths our debauchery could plunge. But nothing illustrates it better than the fact that in February, while the US was preparing to enter in an unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq in defiance of international law and our allies, the main concern of the American public was who Joe Millionaire would pick to be his girl, and if she would accept him once she discovered he was really a working stiff.
Why, just five months ago, when Simon Cowell of American Idol was named BOTM, The Konformist noted that, Simon aside, "the quality of television has been on the upward curve, believe it or not." What were we smokin'? Whatever the trend was in October, American tastes have sunk to a new level of sick depravity during the February 2003 Sweeps Month. Indeed, at this point, Nasty Simon seems almost saintly compared to the shameless trash posing as "Reality Television" on the boob tube.
First, a little clarification: not all Reality Television qualifies as "Reality Television from Hell" (which, along with the videotape Reality TV Bumfights, is The Konformist Beast of the Month.) Indeed, ever since Survivor became the biggest craze during the 2000 summer, some of the finest TV of recent years has come from the genre. More than most, the editorial staff of The Konformist had a healthy appreciation and admiration for the straightforward scheming of the Machiavellian Richard Hatch (and that Elisabeth sure was a babe!) And there's something to be said for any television trend that could help Ozzy Osbourne at least temporarily replace even Homer Simpson as America's Favorite Dad. (Now if only the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would induct Black Sabbath like they rightfully deserve.) Heck, we even enjoy Anna Nicole Smith for what she is (and, we might add, believe she deserves every damn penny she inherited be hanging around that kreepy, repulsive old Texas oilman.)
But there is a downside to the trend, and that downside has become clearly obvious, especially as the US prepares for a war that threatens to put international developments back to the pre-WWII years. Even more than the trashy daytime talk-show phenom of the Nineties (which culminated in the persona of Jerry Springer) the Reality Television from Hell (RTVFH for short) fad of the Zeroes represents a lack of standards, a sick wallowing in stuff that lacks any sense of intelligence or good taste, to our detriment. Perhaps this is no coincidence: in Brave New World, Alduous Huxley argued that the Orwellian police state wasn't the best way to control and manipulate a society, but rather to fill people's lives with so many frivolous and bogus pleasures that they are too busy to pay attention to what is really going on. By indulging a faux hedonism with an appetite for distraction, the theory goes, the suckers would never know what hit 'em.
(And hey, we're not arguing against real worthwhile distractions here: why, The Konformist editorial office has spent more time playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City - the first truly great cultural work of the 21st Century - of late rather than trivial things such as, say, writing. But if you're going to revel in a mass opium, make it an opium worth reveling in.)
Where do we begin in cataloging the worst of RTVFH? Well, using our trusty Beast-o-meter logarithms, we've calculated a Top Ten, by weighing both the level of inherent loathsomeness of the show and the cultural impact of the garbage. 'Nuff said. Here's our Top Ten of the post-Survivor era:
* Number 8-10: CELEBRITY BOOT CAMP, SURREAL LIFE & I'M A CELEBRITY: GET ME OUT OF HERE! - All essentially the same show, the concept is simple: take washed-up, grade-Z celebrities (Kato Kaelin, Corey Feldman and Bruce Jenner) and turn their lives into a competitive public display of humiliation so the viewing audience can drown their sorrows in satisfaction, knowing they have more dignity than these chumps. Barry Williams, Vince Neil and MC Hammer all deserve a better coda than this.
* Number 7: BIG BROTHER - When it first aired, this show was considered a slimy takeoff of the Survivor formula. Now it's almost respectable in comparison to most of the crap out there. Still, the idea of using Orwellian technology to monitor the lives of contestants in a popularity contest voted by viewers is both banal and a covert promotion of police state technology.
* Number 6: ARE YOU HOT? - Let's give this show some credit for not even feigning any pretense of being anything but completely shallow. It seems in catering to a silly mentality that competitions should involve some sort of talent, it is normally mandatory to throw in some flimsy fig leaf to cover a show is really about sex appeal. Not in this case: this "contest" begins and ends with a competition to decide precisely what the title says, with the help of Lorenzo Lamas. The winner will be named "The Sexiest Person in America" - which presumably would earn them the right (or punishment) to compete in...
* Number 5: THE BACHELOR / THE BACHELORETTE - A number one hit among viewers, shallow attractive people compete with other shallow attractive people for the potential opportunity to spend the rest of their shallow worthless lives together, in a competition watched by a shallow, brain-dead audience. Boy, Sartre would have a field day with this: nothing could be a more deserving existential hell than having these people forced to remain together for eternity as punishment.
* Number 4: FEAR FACTOR - How much are you willing to debase yourself for money? That seems to be the central question of this show, which seems less interested in challenging people's fears than exploiting gross-out dares. One has to wonder what is worst thing about the show: that people are willing to compete in some of the repulsive challenges, that producers of the show think the public would want to watch this, or that the producers are right.
* Number 3: CELEBRITY BOXING - Combine Fear Factor with the Celebrity Reality TV and what do you get? This, where we get to see washed-up celebrities beat the crap out of each other as a form of entertainment. (Sigh.) Poor Barry Williams, have you no dignity left?
* Number 2: JOE MILLIONAIRE - Leave it to FOX to trump The Bachelor formula: A bunch of shallow women compete for the affection of a man who, unbeknownst to them, is not a multi-millionaire like they believe him to be. Exploiting all the worst cliches of humanity, this exercise in shallowness has an uglier, malevolent spirit to it, as it shows women at their most cold-hearted, greedy stereotype, all plotting for the perfect Mr. Wrong. Even worse is this series was the most-viewed show of the Sweeps period, with an audience apparently eager to see a dark and cynical conclusion (which, unfortunately for them, didn't happen, as the series wimped out with a Cinderella-like happy ending.)
* Number 1: TEMPTATION ISLAND - Sorry, Joe, but Temptation is still the king of the sleazy Reality Island. When it premiered during the 2001 winter, it was a top twenty hit and provided the standard for which all other RTVFH would emulate. In this case, shallow, phony couples would pursue and be pursued by other shallow, phony people for the opportunity to "hook up" (the update from The Dating Game days of the euphemism for "making whoopee") over Mai Tais in tropical paradise. Destroying relationships as a form of entertainment is hard to beat in the Beastliness department. The second season of the series, released while Americans were stuck in a post 9-11 guilt trip, flopped, but with the success of Joe and others, we're convinced Temptation Island will return again very soon, sleazier than ever...
And there you have it, the Top Ten Reality Television from Hell, and not once did we have to mention Michael Jackson.
(Okay, we wanted to completely ignore him, but he's just too easy a target. And just between us, didn't his claim in interviews of giving young boys "warm milk and cookies" before they slept in his bed sound suspiciously like the kreepiest euphemism you've ever heard?)
It is no accident that the top three shows on this list are by Fox, the network headed by Rupert Murdoch. While he feeds the Appetite for Distraction with his inane frivolity, his Fox "News" channel pushes Appetite for Destruction propaganda for war and ultra-right politics that would stun Orwell in its blatant obviousness. Indeed, the precursor for RTVFH, Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?, was by Fox as well. At the time it came out, the show was awarded BOTM status in its own right: here's what we said at the time: "Fox officials have feigned the high road themselves, declaring that they are out of the 'exploitative reality show' business. (That is, until the scandal dies down, then it's back to the gravy train.)" Boy, did we have the situation pegged or what?
Still, let's give Murdoch some credit. (After all, the guy who financed The Simpsons, The X-Files and That 70's Show deserves some respect.) Rupert, for all his faults, at least has some standards (or at least he suspects his advertisers have some.) The same can't be said for the makers of BUMFIGHTS, a view-by-video reality show that is an assault on any sense of basic decency and ethics.
In Bumfights, homeless people, a serious portion of which are afflicted with mental illness, alcoholism and other drug addictions, were filmed while they engaged in offensive stunts and acts of violence. Among the most notorious examples:
* One homeless man is seen ripping out his front tooth with pliers.
* Another rams his head into a steel door.
* Another man, a self-described crack addict, sets his head on fire.
* In actual "bumfights", homeless people stomp and pummel each other until they are bloodied.
* Tattoos that say "Bum Life" and "Bumfights" were branded on the hands, bellies and foreheads of "participants" in bold red letters.
How did the producers get the volunteers for the project? Simple. Exploiting their situation, producers offered the homeless people food, shelter, and (more often than not) drug and alcohol money to abuse others and themselves for the sick display. Participants claim they were often paid in $5 and $10 increments to entice them in desperation.
The producers of Bumfights now claim much of the material is staged. Even if that is true, it was very poorly staged. One man broke his ankle during filming, and paramedics were called in. A steel rod was inserted in the leg of a former Vietnam Vet after it was broken in two places. Another Army veteran would later go to the hospital after suffering seizures from repeatedly slamming his head for the show.
Police claim that 300,000 copies of the film were sold at $20 apiece over the Internet of the show. (That's $6 million dollars, in case you're slow at math.) Producers now insist those numbers are inflated (though supposedly inflated numbers were once part of their boastful sales pitch.) Whatever the actual sales of the tape, the producers allegedly made enough money to offer a bribe of $25,000 to two participants in the show to not cooperate with a police investigation. Besides obstruction of justice charges, the producers of the series face charges of conspiracy to solicit an assault with deadly force.
The producers insist the charges are an attack on their First Amendment rights. If that were the case, The Konformist would be the first to side with them. However, the First Amendment is not a shield for overtly criminal behavior, and exploiting addictions and poverty to get the desperate to abuse themselves and others is no more legal and ethical just because a camera is rolling.
No doubt about it: Girls Gone Wild this isn't. It isn't surprising that two of the central "competitors" in the Bumfights video are former members of the US military. Used and disposed of, they are now among the refuse of a sick society, to be exploited in the most repulsive of ways. Even the grotesque gladiator contests of the Roman Empire were admirable compared to this: after all, the gladiators were honored for bravery, even if it was brought on by enslavement. In the case of Bumfights, they are mocked and laughed at for their misfortune. Suddenly the fate of Barry Williams doesn't seem so cruel.
Bumfights is the current Omega for the utter lack of ethical principle in a morally bankrupt and debauched society, and its success is an indictment for our absolute lack of standards. On the floor of the House of Representatives, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, said the film "sets a new standard for the cruel exploitation of damaged human beings." For once, a man in Congress is absolutely correct. Of course, don't hold your breath: after all, with Rupert Murdoch, ANYTHING is possible.
In any case, we salute Bumfights and Reality Television from Hell as Beasts of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, dudes!!!
Thanks to Entertainment Weekly for help on this article:
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