Thursday, October 16, 2003

The Schmo Must Go On

In the context of popular culture, I’ve heard post-modernism defined (or characterized) as the quality of being relentlessly self-referential. If that’s so, then I can think of no better example of post-modern television than “Joe Schmo,” Spike TV’s reality-show spoof.

The premise, in case you haven’t heard, is that a regular guy named Matt Gould has been led to believe that he is participating in a reality show called “Lap of Luxury,” in which nine contestants living in a luxurious house vote each out one-by-one, “Survivor”-style, to win a prize of $100,000. But in reality (heh), all the other contestants are actually actors; Matt is the only person on the set who isn’t in on the joke.

Here’s the key question: Is this reality TV or not? On the one hand, the whole point is that it’s a scam, not reality: everyone’s an actor, everything’s been planned, just one guy is the patsy. But the patsy’s actions can’t be scripted, and his presence creates an unavoidable element of unpredictability. For Matt, this clearly is a reality show, and that will continue to be true even once the truth is revealed. Moreover, while the other “participants” have scripts to follow, they also have to ad-lib and roll with the punches in response to Matt’s choices. They are constantly on the spot, responding to the unexpected, sometimes trying to cover up their own laughter. In one physical challenge, some actor/participants were unable to complete the challenge as required to assure that the planned person “won” immunity in the next vote. The other actor/participants had to alter their behavior (such as by faking errors) to keep the scheduled plot on track.

And here’s where things get truly self-referential. This is a reality show about a reality show. We are not just observing Matt’s trials and witnessing Matt’s commentaries; we also get to hear the commentaries of the actors, producers, and crew about the difficulty of maintaining the charade. In some segments, we see split-screens, one showing Matt’s activities “on camera,” two others showing actor/participants laughing into their fists, and another showing the crew members in the control room watching those very events on camera. We see them gasp and bite their nails when it looks like Matt might catch on to the scam. This is not just reality TV -- it is reality TV caught in a hall of mirrors. M. C. Escher might have been impressed.

Consider this. The show is intended to ridicule the extremes of other reality shows, yet the extreme moments are engaging for precisely the same reasons as those they lampoon. The contestants participate in a series of (rigged) contests, and each one is a ludicrous over-the-top version of similar contests in other programs. On “Survivor” and “Fear Factor,” contestants are asked to eat an endless variety of revolting plants and animals. On “Joe Schmo,” Matt is asked to eat… a steaming dog turd. In another contest, contestants jump into a swimming pool to create splashes large enough to wet down the T-shirts of models, thereby revealing the messages (and blurred-out nipples) underneath. A contest like this is, ostensibly, a spoof of the voyeurism of other reality shows (e.g., strip trivia contests on “Dog Eat Dog”). And sure, there is commentary here, but there’s also bare skin. It’s no mistake that “Schmo” is broadcast on Spike TV, “the first network for men.”

After this much discussion, you might get the impression I think “Schmo” is good television. Well, it’s not. But in a way, that’s the whole point. “Schmo” succeeds by taking what is bad in other reality programs and making it worse. If you find the show’s silliness or vulgarity enjoyable on its own, great; if you don’t, the producers can claim they are mocking the silliness and vulgarity of reality TV. And in so doing, they also mock themselves.

Yep, I’ll be tuning in next week for the season finale.

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