Friday, January 18, 2008

Postmodernity Killed the Game Show Star

Where have you gone Pat Sajak, a nation turns it's lonely eyes to you:

Consider the austerity, simplicity and sheer serious-mindedness of older programmes such as Mastermind, Countdown, Fifteen-to-One, or, in the US, Jeopardy, all of which consisted of a basic question-and-answer format (or in the case of Jeopardy, the other way round). For the most part, they also embodied an amateur ethos: the prize in Fifteen-to-One or Countdown was not a wad of cash, but a tacky trophy and, foremost, the prestige of having proved oneself so brainy.

Even when cash prizes were afforded, the rewards were meagre, and in retrospect comical. [...]

Quizzing on television has since become less straightforward, less serious and less literal-minded.

In fact, it's become more of a self-parody -- and several examples of trends are cited as evidence.

Now, one could dismiss this as the inevitable implosion of a prominent element of trash television and/or pop culture, but I'm more curious about what it means about the current state of state of Competition in our society.

Game shows are in many ways contemporary versions of freshly invented Sports, only instead of James Naismith with a ball and a peach basket in the YMCA rec room, we now ship a group of contestants off to an exotic local, like the Trump Corporation board room, and make them do ridiculous things for, um, fabulous prizes! Game shows these days strip competition down to almost it's most primordial essentials wherein two personalities clash for superiority independent of skill or talent (see: Malakar, Sanjaya). If you're playing football, baseball, or basketball you need talent and the fire in your belly in order to succeed or one risks "winning" the worst possible consolation prize: exposure as someone who thought they had skills, but really had none (this is what make the first few episode of each season of American Idol so apparently addictive).

No so with the current batch of game shows. To drag out American Idol again, half the appeal of the show is watching contestants go down in flames, observing gleefully as misguided dreams crash and burn in an orgy of national humiliation. The viewer can't point to a winner and say, 'Well, they just played better today,' or 'Well, they just wanted it more today,' etc. because the viewer actually is the winner. The viewer had the common sense to keep his talentless ass at home instead of waiting in line for hours to be told that he sucks. That's the twisted genius of shows like Idol, they have shattered the fourth wall and made the viewer a contestant who does the absolute minimum required of any competition: showing up. Thus the creation of the spectator-contestant who competes for not glory, nor even fabulous prizes!, but who participates for a (all but guaranteed) feeling of self-validation that derives from premise that the spectator-contestant simply is not the subject of a national viewing audiences' pity and fear.

This could have a pretty damning effect on the state of competition to come. Being a spectator-contestant in the above sense eliminates one the most important elements of the competitive experiences: risk. There simply is none in something like Idol, and few things emphasize this more than the song selection used in the show. It's nearly all standard identifiable pop tunes, songs that don't necessarily reflect someone's ability to sing, but allow the singer to emote appropriately.

Maybe this is all a good thing, a cultural rewiring wherein we seek a new outlet to excise our residual competitive juices after a long day. Or maybe Hollywood's just all out of Ideas. Or, perhaps most frightening of all, maybe game shows aren't suffering from a "postmodern death" at all, but are, in fact, only now approaching a fundamental and age-old truth of the human experience: that life isn't fair and that sometimes a wink and smile gets one farther than talent and skill ever could.

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