The Benefactor

So here’s the premise of The Benefactor: dot-com billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban invites 16 contestants into his mansion, subjects them to a bunch of asinine “tests for success,” and then decides which one of them deserves a million dollars. The words “frustrating” and “annoying” don’t do this show justice. “Ridiculous” and “insane” don’t capture the senselessness of Cuban’s elimination methodology. And “stupid” … well, as we find out in The Benefactor‘s first episode, you better not call Cuban’s game stupid. (An off-the-cuff comment about the potential absurdity of the game got Harley-driving ex-Marine Richard booted before the premiere’s second commercial break.) In fact, no description nails the odd combination of disgust, anger, and stress The Benefactor produces better than the rhetorical question posed by Linda, a professional football player and one of Cuban’s sweet 16: “It almost, like, scares you, y’know?”

Linda is absolutely right. The Benefactor is very scary, not because it proves that people will do anything if you promise them a payday, or because it allows one super-rich guy to flaunt his wealth — we’ve seen too many episodes of Fear Factor and The Apprentice to be shocked by that. Cuban’s vehicle is frightening because it pushes these accepted elements of reality television past their breaking points, giving him free rein to take a quantum leap forward in the reduction of “average” folks to mere playthings for the wealthy.

In The Benefactor‘s first episode, Cuban rambles roughshod down the trail Trump blazed, self-promoting at every opportunity and playing puppetmaster to a degree as yet untouched by “serious” reality shows. (Andy Dick acted similarly on The Assistant, but that was intended as parody.) As is often the case with The Apprentice, Cuban’s show focuses less on the people who lust after the prize and more on the man holding the purse strings. This is partly because he’s the famous face, and also because, like most other reality shows, The Benefactor reinforces a familiar capitalist power dynamic: when you have money, you can do whatever you want. But mostly, it’s because there’s no bigger Mark Cuban fan than Mark Cuban himself. And that’s what makes The Benefactor so much worse than other reality shows: his unrelenting focus on himself.

While there are no hard and fast rules to the competition per se, Cuban does repeat several critical guidelines for any successful business person: you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression; whatever expectations you set, you had better meet them; and you must be able to deal with pressure. Cuban attempts to prove his dedication to these guidelines in the first episode by cutting three contestants who fail to adhere to them, but really only succeeds in coming off as a petty, spoiled brat.

The aforementioned Richard is cut for making a bad first impression (later, Cuban admits, “It sounds crazy, but when he called the game ‘stupid,’ I took it personally”). Marketing director Laurel gets axed for refusing to play air guitar to AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” failing to live up to the “wild and crazy gal” expectations set by her audition tape in which she — gasp — took out the garbage naked! (Laurel’s elimination, while wholly unfair, is probably a blessing in disguise, because when asked what she’d do with the million bucks, her honest answer was, “Start a punk rawk band.” And she actually pronounced it “rawk.” By the way, she’s 34.)

The final choice came down to Grayson, a med student/professional poker player who wasn’t outgoing enough to impress Mark, or William, a fat, loud, obnoxious dude who told the Benefactor he didn’t really need the million bucks, because he was confident he could make his own. You could see Grayson’s elimination coming a mile away (Cubes couldn’t help but see some of himself in William’s clown ass), so the only question was how it would be decided. Enter Cuban, with a smug smirk and a game of Jenga, which he insists is a “perfect metaphor” for the business world, because you can’t let your hands shake. To William’s credit, he won fair and square (and by taunting his opponent like a bratty pre-teen on the playground), meaning that Grayson’s gone, we’re down to 13, and, as Cuban constantly reminds us, “anything can happen” on The Benefactor.

While such tests are clearly absurd, the contestants’ reactions are downright crazy. Second-grade teacher Shawn said that finding out the final elimination of the day would be based on a Jenga game was “actually something of a relief,” presumably because it has a defined set of rules. Self described “total package” Femia observes, “I’m not silly enough to think that this can’t happen to me.” No one questions Cuban’s rationale. They don’t even rail against Big Benefactor in the confessional booth, because they don’t want to blow their shot.

This embrace of totalitarianism makes the series perversely intriguing: in one hour, it captures the quintessential modern fear, that one’s life and livelihood can be taken away at any moment for any reason by powers beyond one’s control. (It’s like Cuban and executive producer Clay Newbill threw Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” into a blender with Mark Burnett’s playbook, and The Benefactor is the resulting smoothie.) Cuban gets a kick out of the paranoia he engineers, openly threatening fresh-faced Latane with elimination if he refuses to rank the “hotness” of the females in the house. In his one-on-one interviews, he asks the contestants what they think the other competitors are saying about them behind their backs. Most deviously, he kicks Richard off for insulting the show, the first indication given to the cast that they are under constant surveillance.

While they obviously know they’re being filmed for the show, they didn’t know they were going to be watched at all times, even when they were by themselves. They were just told to show up and “play the game,” difficult when you don’t know the rules. This is Cuban at his most blatantly self-serving. He knows that eliminating someone in the first 10 minutes will hook more viewers than introductions to his lame-ass contestants and shots of his palatial estate, so he opens the door and lets Richard walk through it.

Previews for the upcoming season promise it will only get worse, as Cuban banks elimination on a game of Horse and puts the contestants’ chances in the hands of three second graders. When you strip away his rhetoric and flimsy efforts to transform banal activities like playing Jenga into “metaphors,” what’s left is… well, not a whole lot. No matter how much money he gives away, Mark Cuban will still look cheap.

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