Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 9 pm EST (Fox)
Cast: as themselves, (drill instructor) Dave Francisco, (drill instructor) Leo McSweeney, (drill instructor) Tony Rosenbum, (drill instructor) Annette Taylor, Kasi Brown, Katie Coddington, Rebecca Ann Haar, Jodi Hutak, Dana Jackson, Jane Katherine, Jack Lauder, Mark Meyer, Alfonso Moretti, Jr., Jennifer Moretty, John Park, Sue Yen Pupo, David Thomson, Jen Whitlow, Ryan Wolf, Shawn Yaney
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“Do you think you’re on the right show today?”
I was in a bed and breakfast in Dingle, Ireland recently, after a seven-day drive with friends through the West. This was my first time in the country and, as we passed through a number of towns, I was amazed by what seemed to be a much simpler way of life than I was used to. It appeared as if people really had figured out—or remembered—a way to live day to day with tiny refrigerators, narrow roads, and an almost complete absence of supermarkets. I didn’t want to leave.
Then, I turned on the TV, and was transfixed by what looked to be a game show host openly berating her contestants. I couldn’t look away. As life went on in the streets of Dingle, my eyes were riveted by this show, so different from anything I had previously seen. My fanciful notions of Ireland’s pre-technological, pre-industrial splendor were put on hold for the next 45 minutes, while I reveled in televised humiliation.
Like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire before it, the BBC hit, The Weakest Link, has now reached our shores. Most of the show’s trappings are the same as in the UK version: the set design, the music, even the same insulting host, Anne Robinson. The only difference I can discern is that now the contestants join in on the sadistic fun. In both versions, contestants are asked to vote off the “weakest link” at the end of each round. Then, after they’ve revealed their votes, Anne tries to provoke them into insulting each other. In the British version—at least the one episode I saw—the contestants remained impassioned in pursuit of their goal, as if realizing that hurling insults at the other contestants wouldn’t increase their shot at the big money. In the U.S., however, several of the contestants jumped at the chance to hurl insults at the one about to be banished. It’s good to see that in America, we refuse to allow such class-based categories as “host” and “contestant” to get in the way of an opportunity for some good humiliation.
The Weakest Link is not exactly a game show, at least not in the strictest sense of the term. More accurately, it’s a game show in the way that Survivor is a game show. Although clearly knowledge does play a role—in that the one who gets the most questions wrong risks being voted the weakest link—ultimately, it’s the votes that count. In the British version, one of the male contestants voted out a woman because he feared that a greater number of women players would gang up on the men. Or, in the American premiere, the contestants vote off high school student James after a round in which he actually got the greatest number of questions right because, as another contestant Mary said, “the 18-year-old is in over his head.” Clearly, we’re no longer in Millionaire territory, where at least the illusion of intelligence determines who wins and who loses. I can’t imagine Regis telling a contestant who is answering questions correctly to leave the show because the pressure is getting too intense.
There is one important way in which The Weakest Link is not like Survivor: contestants are not carried over from episode to episode. We’re not allowed enough time or space to turn them into characters, to place their petty humiliations within a broader narrative. And that’s ultimately what hurts The Weakest Link the most. Since we can’t contextualize the contestants’ manipulations, they come off as misbehaving children. It’s hard to root for any of them because they seem to be so willing to turn on each other for not knowing what Frosty the Snowman’s eyes were made of (coal). You can root for the least childish of the bunch, but you don’t feel like much is at stake. My favorite contestant in the premiere episode, Renee, seemed to be the smartest and most well-behaved player. Her response to losing the game at the end, however, was filled with such animosity towards the winner, John, that I was left feeling like I didn’t know Renee at all, which of course I didn’t. In fact, the only person you can like is Anne Robinson, because she’s the only one who you watch for more than a few minutes.
Unlike The Weakest Link, you spend a considerable amount of time with the contestants in Fox’s newest foray into “reality,” Boot Camp. In his review of Survivor II: The Australian Outback on this site, Dan French described the show as the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire of reality television. In a similar way, Boot Camp is The Weakest Link of the genre. It’s easy to see the similarities between Boot Camp and Survivor. They both focus on physical challenges. (In fact, Survivor creator Mark Burnett is convinced enough of the similarities that he is suing Fox for copyright infringement.) However, despite the fact that both series feature an inordinate number of crocodile shots (actually, Boot Camp shows alligators), there is one major difference between the two shows. Boot Camp has drill instructors. Even on a bad day, Survivor host Jeff Probst would have a hard time competing for screen time with the four “hosts” of Boot Camp. We wouldn’t be able to hear Jeff over the incessant screaming.
And that’s where the similarity between Boot Camp and The Weakest Link begins. Once again, humiliation becomes an integral part of the show. The goal is not just to survive the physical hardships of an imagined boot camp, but also the verbal and mental abuse liberally dished out by the drill instructors. We’re not concerned here with whether or not the players will have enough food to eat. Instead, we’re concerned with questions like, “How many seconds will Recruit Wolf be given to use the bathroom?” As in The Weakest Link, contestants are encouraged to join in on the humiliation fest at the end of each episode: contestants vote each other out, and the recruit voted out then is allowed to take another player with him or her, so that each episode ends with a particularly spiteful act.
This is not to say that Millionaire and Survivor don’t humiliate their contestants. Regis is particularly good at mounting the pressure as he gently asks the contestant if he or she is sure of the answer or wants to use a life-line. He’s clearly paid to tighten the screws. But on both Millionaire and Survivor, humiliation is framed by other narrative structures. On the former, we are led to believe that knowledge really does pay off, even if Regis is trying to undermine each player’s confidence in his or her own intellectual ability. And on the latter, we are offered a Darwinian vision of nature where the strong survive, although tribe members are given just enough supplies that they don’t necessarily need to be strong to survive. On The Weakest Link and Boot Camp, we are not afforded the comfort of those narratives. Both shows make half-hearted attempts at appealing to intelligence or strength, but it’s clear from the start that Anne Robinson’s insults on The Weakest Link are more entertaining than the contestants’ knowledge and it’s similarly clear that the recruits of Boot Camp would have a much easier time surviving if the Drill Instructors took a few tips from Miss Manners.
As a result, both of these series provide a refreshing alternative to the pre-packaged “reality” to which we are more accustomed. They are willing to place humiliation front and center. As much as I enjoy Survivor‘s drama, there are moments when I get frustrated at the illusion that Probst insists on maintaining, when I want him to stop calling the boomerang a “weapon” and just refer to it as the boomerang it is. And there are times when I want Regis to shut up and accept the fact that that is the final answer. Boot Camp and The Weakest Link are honest about making people look bad and there is a genuine thrill at watching it unfold.
What I’m reminded of most when watching Boot Camp and The Weakest Link is perhaps the most fascinating, most frustrating, and ultimately the most boring TV show of the past year. As both Al Gore and George W. Bush stood up in front of the television cameras asking for our votes—which I suppose is more in line with Big Brother than with Boot Camp—I was shocked at just how badly they both came off. Bush was so clearly being put together by those around him and Gore so clearly wanted us to like him (down to his famous televised kiss at the Democratic Convention which, I’ll admit, I believed). They both were so ill-suited for television that it became perversely fascinating. At a point in our political history when everything is pre-packaged and polished, I was amazed at just how bad both of these candidates were at plugging in to our preconceived notions of what a political race is about. And, for a moment, I felt like the extent to which they were both willing to humiliate themselves allowed us to see more clearly what was really at stake: power and the hoops people will jump through to acquire it. That ultimately is what all of the contestants on all of these shows are aiming at—money (which is one of the easier ways to obtain power). And the more outrageous the obstacles in their paths, the clearer it becomes that some people will do almost anything to get that power. That is a fascinating, if troubling, sight—almost a Marxist argument personified.
When Anne Robinson asks a contestant, “Do you think you’re on the right show today?”, even though she means it as a scathing blast at the player’s intellect, I take it more literally as a meta-question about what these people are really after. Because, as upfront as the show is about making people scramble after the prize money, the dream of that payoff is just as much a fantasy as the Darwinian struggle Survivor is so good at exploiting. Granted, it is a more honest fantasy because it’s the underlying dream that drives the participants on all of these shows. But, once that fantasy is revealed, I begin to wonder if that really is the show I want to be on.
And so, as with the election, so too with Boot Camp and The Weakest Link. Ultimately staring ugly reality in the face is less fun than the fantasy of surviving by one’s wits in the Australian outback. As transfixed as I was at the sight of this new televised experience back in Dingle, Ireland, when the show was over, I was glad it was over. It was time to return to another episode of the pre-industrial splendor of the Ireland I had imagined and so enjoyed.