The Land That Decency Forgot
The end of reality television, and human civilization along with it, is usually evoked through a series with a kill or be killed set-up reminiscent of The Running Man or Lord of the Flies. For the Fox network, however, the world ends not with a bang, but with 44 little people vs. an 8,800-pound elephant.
As the writers’ strike drags on and the networks are giving over to reality-heavy spring seasons, Fox has based-jumped directly into the land that decency forgot with The Moment of Truth. The format is simple: contestants are hooked up to a lie detector and asked deeply personal questions, then re-asked the most excruciating ones in front of a studio audience, friends, and family, to see if they’ll tell the “truth.”
The ad campaign boiled down to a simple and possibly effective pitch: Have we really sunk this low? Tune in and find out! The answer is yes, but in such a low-grade, drawn out Deal or No Deal fashion that you’re likely to switch channels before titillation or outrage sets in. it doesn’t help that the questions are predictable: “Do you think you’ll be married to your husband five years from now?” or “Have you ever been paid for sex?” or again, “Do you think you’re the best looking of all your friends?” Why risk legal repercussions for killing someone on a desert island when you can scrape his soul with a dental pick, humiliate him in front of millions, and destroy his relationships with people he loves?
Host Mark Walberg is piss-poor at generating any kind of dialogue with the contestants. For the premiere episode, he kept his face buried in his cards, acting like he was stuck talking to his wife’s best friend’s boring husband. “So,” he asked, “You’re a personal trainer?” After it was revealed that the second contestant, an outgoing Steve Buscemi/Fonz hybrid named George, was a gambling addict, Walberg segued to a commercial with, “He’s going to gamble that $10,000 right after this.” Classy.
It doesn’t help that the first contestant, ex-New York Giant Ty Keck, was an amiable, but unrevealing player. He didn’t appear to be ashamed about anything. Good for him, but not for the show. He sat in his chair with the stupid grin, as if knowing all he had to do was answer a bunch of questions to which he knows the answers, and so win a load of money.
Herein lies the show’s greatest fault. Why wouldn’t contestants tell the truth? They have made the decision to participate. They’ve already been asked the questions and probably have a pretty good idea which ones the producers will pick to re-ask them. Whether they lie or not, the truth will come out. Who wouldn’t take the money and run? As Ty said, “I’ve revealed too much to stop.”
Because the contestants are more or less foregone, the greatest drama emerges in watching the three friends and family members sitting nearby, as they’re sucker-punched by their loved one’s rampant exhibitionism. In the first segment, the expression on the face of Catia, Ty’s wife, gradually shifted from wary, but game to a grimmer sort of expression (“We’ll talk when we get home”). The friends, surrogates for the viewer’s voyeuristic guilt, shifted uncomfortably in their seats, looking like Nick and Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. One of the “friends,” April, leaned over to another, Marquez, and whispered—loud enough so we could hear—“This is serious.”
Yes and no. At its ugliest, The Moment of Truth is like a low-rent version of Minority Report, where a spouse deserves to be vilified for asking herself hard questions about her marriage, or an average citizen pilloried for secretly thinking that an obese person is ugly. Any incorrect thought, wayward emotion or error in judgment (like deciding to appear on this show) is exposed and punished. From the questionee, the circle of victims radiates outward to family and friends, and behind them, the studio audience is heard shrieking and crying like grandmothers at a Sicilian funeral. There’s something touching about the contestants, refusing to be fazed by the questions and resisting the seeming safety of prudery.
But nothing about this series could be called “unexpected,” coming as it does, from a corporation that perennially tempers its conservatism with the maturity and restraint of an eight-year-old. Fox appeals to our worst instincts. And I confess to being disappointed by the tameness of the first episode.
At this point, I feel like I should make a speech about the juncture of reality television, surveillance culture, and Puritanism meet. But I’d rather suppress the memory of the entire episode.