Torture TV

By Ellen Goodman
Washington Post
January 26, 2002

BOSTON -- At some point before the commercial break, while the flames were leaping and the heart monitor was beeping, I pondered the life of John McEnroe. I thought back to that wonderful moment at Wimbledon when the bad boy of tennis had just blown a point or two.

McEnroe turned and screamed at the audience: "I'm so disgusting, you shouldn't watch. Everybody, leave!"

How true! How prescient! Two decades later, he's hosting the brand-new high-anxiety, prime-time stress-test game known as -- ominous tones, please -- "The Chair."

The show features contestants strapped to a kind of 23rd century dentist's chair. Their heart rates are tested by having a tarantula dropped near theirheads. Now, surrounded by shooting flames, they have to keep their pulse low enough to answer such mind-bending questions as: Which motel chain has the sleepy bear in pajamas as its mascot?

All I can say is: "You shouldn't watch. Everybody, leave! Now!"

"The Chair" is, of course, marginally less repulsive than "The Chamber."  Fox's TV twin ratchets up the pain-pleasure principle -- pain for the contestant, pleasure for the audience -- by dousing contestants with icy water, hitting them with hurricane-force winds and holding them above flames like meat over a barbecue. People compete for the right to enter this chamber to then answer such Mensa questions as: What is Emeril Lagasse's catchphrase?

Welcome to the new generation of game shows. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has been followed by "Who Wants to Be a Sadomasochist." They are in the same psycho-cohort group as "Fear Factor," a so-called reality program that specializes in large numbers of rodents crawling over small numbers of volunteers.

Normally, I swear, my resting heart rate wouldn't rise to the bait. But my short-term memory extends back to the post-Sept. 11 days when the entertainment industry seemed a bit chastened. There was the idea that maybe, just maybe, the mass culture was the teeniest bit off-kilter, the itsiest bit offensive.

Bill Maher, in a politically correct moment, said, "A show like 'Fear Factor' can't possibly work now. We seem to be a more sober nation." Disney's Michael Eisner said, "Hollywood and New York are going to change -- and so will the nature of content." Another TV production company veep offered the common wisdom: "We see entertainment now as much more wholesome. . . . We are definitely moving into a kinder, gentler time."

Sweetheart, get me rewrite and resurrect irony. The new genre passes the torture test. This isn't must-see TV; it's must-see-it-to-believe-it TV. Let me entertain you with people suffering anxiety, feeling pain and bobbing for plums in a fish tank full of serpents. Subject yourself to "heart-stoppers" for fun, fame and profit.

I assume that the volunteers are not actually going to be killed by scorpions or burned to a crisp on prime-time TV. Eating cow brains, presumably from sane cows, isn't lethal, although the best plans go awry. Remember what happened when Jenny Jones's "reality" show ended up in court when a guest killed a "secret admirer"?

But just a few months ago the entire country was soberly and communally attentive to real suffering, to firefighters rushing into buildings and to families in mourning. Now, faster than you can say "closure," Suffering Lite is entertainment, and endurance is a contest.

How long before some producer invites a surviving firefighter into "The Chamber"?

Worse yet, these shows are directed at twentysomethings. We know that because the questions on "The Chair" and "The Chamber" all reek of product placement and pop culture. The one foreign affairs question on "The Chair" was: Which country is the subject of "Black Hawk Down"?

Surely the producers deserve extra time in the chamber for offering pain, stress and disgust as a spectator sport for this generation.

I am not going to report McEnroe et al. to Amnesty International. After all, on the Amnesty Web site it says "torturers rely on not being seen." Torture Lite depends on being seen. On first glance, "The Chair" brought in 12 million viewers, and "The Chamber" brought 10 million.

This genre too shall pass. But here in my chair, the heart-stoppers keep coming. Osama is still on the loose. Part of the Muslim world still thinks he's a hero, and part still thinks he's innocent. The FBI hasn't found the guy with the anthrax.

Palpitations yet? Try this. Our vast entertainment industry can't even put together a sales pitch to sell American values abroad. But boy can they undermine them at home. It's pure torture to watch.