When is a game show not really a game show? When it's an excuse for public humiliation called Distraction.
When is a game show not really a game show? When it's an excuse for public humiliation called Distraction. Based on a popular British Channel 4 series, it's premised on the idea that anyone will do anything for a buck. Really, after several seasons of Jackass and The Maury Povich Show, we should know this by now.
But Distraction, hosted by affable Jimmy Carr, means to put a post-ironic spin on personal debasement for money. As contestants acknowledge their humiliation throughout the episode, the program claims preemptive moral high ground and the audience can enjoy people being folded, spindled, and mutilated without feeling too ashamed.
Actually, this abuse is not very challenging. Contestants answer basic trivia questions ("What is the capital of Panama?", "Who played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's The Doors?") while performing mildly painful and/or embarrassing stunts. For the second season's first episode, our players had pies -- and other less appetizing treats -- thrown directly in their faces, apply as many clothespins as they could to their crud-covered mugs, and then get tattooed. That's right, as Carr explains, "We are scarring people for life. But it's for a good cause... your enjoyment."
Such lowest-denominator strategizing indicates Comedy Central's coming-from-behind position. Unless you're aiming for a decidedly older demographic -- not a lot of kids are tuning into Pat and Vanna -- or have megabucks to offer, human frailty is the primary marketable commodity. Distraction wants to be Survivor for the sedentary. Since there's no guarantee players will win anything, Warhol's blessed 15 minutes seems to be the only incentive.
Of course, game shows have long involved stunts and discomfiture. Think of Beat the Clock (1950-1958) and Truth or Consequences (1950-1988), not to mention The Gong Show (1976-1978). But Distraction may be most like Nickelodeon's Double Dare (1986), where kids doused themselves with the most noxious gruel imaginable in exchange for a bike, a stereo, or a trip to Space Camp. Distraction takes this concept to dada-esque extremes. By this episode's final round, the winner had suffered through a half-dozen face-fulls of goo, been poked with high-tension fabric pinchers, and been tattooed. And then, he won a computer, a high definition TV, and a scooter. What more could a post-collegiate pseudo-slacker want?
Naturally, Distraction has a final trick up its sleeve. While the prizes do belong to the winner, he has to answer a few slightly more difficult questions ("Name Tom Cruise's ex-wives") to keep his booty from being demolished. In the past, Carr has introduced the implements of destruction as explosions, spray paint, and disgruntled contestants with sledgehammers. In this season's premiere, the device was a less than impressive steel barrel filled with concrete -- a half ton of scooter-smashing metal poised to quash the materialistic dreams of the victor. Oddly, the contestants don't seem too phased by this concept.
And this is where Distraction derails. Part of the fun of such shows -- say, the harm-as-humor parameters of MXC -- is the knowledge that, no matter how brave the face, there is substantial dread behind the bravado. Fear Factor thrives on it, and it's what makes that otherwise dismissible geek show an occasionally enjoyable hour. But competitors on Distraction are cocky, as if micromanaging their mortification. You do get the occasional coward, someone suddenly realizing that his dignity is worth more than an iPod player. But not often.
In fact, there are conflicting attitudes on display. While some contestants appear to disdain the process ("Been there"), others affect determination ("Whatever I survive only makes me stronger"). They cancel each other out, leaving a vacuum where some vicarious fun should be. What Distraction needs is less arrogance and more apprehension. Carr can be incredibly witty when he's off the cuff and some of the scripted material is amusing as well. But while Distraction purports to uncover the sordid side of materialism (is there another side?), it doesn't.