"I can't recall a game show where you actively root for the contestant 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…."

mr. grant's rant
don't be cruel

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 I save my most disparaging sentiments for the corpulent dishes served up on television. A healthy dollop of network tv programming is a surefire way to irreparably soil my fragile faith in humanity. It ranks right up there on the enjoyment scale with waking up having contracted a virulent strain of the clap – there is possible enjoyment to be had in pursuit of it’s fleeting charms, but the price you pay for your weakness is both painful and embarrassing.

Case in point:

An email arrives at Smokebox pointing out an interesting 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 much. Maybe you should watch it for awhile before labeling it so harshly. Or maybe you should leave television criticism to folks who actually WATCH television. Just a thought"

Our 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 twinkling 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 just love watching other folks suffer through the protracted anguish of 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. Naturally this unfolds much to the delight of the cabalistic 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 important Neilson 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 dawns on me 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. It's a balance that can only come from the sheer exhilaration experienced when an assortment of synaptically challenged he-men and bitchy beach bimbos 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 shallow and nasty manner, and be a certifiably loose cannon. It makes processing their agony 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 primitive urge -- so why even bother fighting it?

The success of this sort of spectacle just reinforces my growing suspicion that guilty pleasures aside, we have collectively evolved into a rather nasty lot at heart. Even more compelling 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 I can 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!

Unfortunately Fox will be foiled when WB counters with The Colonic, a challenging quest where contestants must consume enormous Italian meals in 90 seconds while suspended by a gelatinous cable tied round their mid-section over an open sewage treatment pond. The drama reaches its apex when the queasy participants are then "cleansed" by host Dennis Rodman either with 38-degree ice water or an habanero-infused tincture when incorrectly identifying important plot nuances from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

My god, the possibilities are endless and horrifying. You may 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 against people, who are actual physical representations of the deterioration of a basic thread of common decency, was an epiphany I wasn't anticipating. I was giggling as they cooked and froze. Laughing as they grimaced and retched. That'll teach you greedy fuckers to sell your soul for a dollar. I was feeling mean, feeling the ripples of contempt course through my veins like a high-grade narcotic. Suddenly it all made perfect sense to me....

...which is exactly why I won't be returning to The Chamber, or any of its ilk again. This world is cruel enough as it is thank you very much. I don't need any help letting go of what's left of my sense of propriety.

And lest you think this mean-spirited assault is limited to television, try picking up an "entertainment" magazine from the local supermarket sometime. Malicious gossip abounds wedged between pages devoted to groups of famous dignitaries who make disparaging comments about people's bodies, mates and clothing selections. Talk radio in all its manifestations seems fueled by cruel premises. Sports radio has Jim Rome. Politics? How about Rush Limbaugh or The Savage Nation? Dr. Laura is there to hurl abuse at the perpetually distressed. They're mean-spirited bastards, each and every one of them. Our Internet message boards are filled with nasty, inhumane exchanges.

When did our appetites for entertainment turn so cruel and so cold?

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. Searching for the lowest common denominator may be a successful monetary strategy, but it does seem to leave out the possibility of 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 ethics. 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.

--mr. grant

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