Green Guide 21 Jan 2010

This week's Green Guide column from The Age (Melbourne).

Click link, or copy follows.

MY DIGITAL video recorder is groaning under the weight of shows such as Dexter (Showcase), Big Love (SBS One) and Californication (Ten), which I will watch one afternoon, when I pretend to be sick. At night, when I am free to cultivate my square eyes, the remote is not my own. It belongs to everyone else in the house, all of whom use the excuse: "But you've recorded that, so you can watch it later." So I sit through the TV choices made by everyone but me: my other half, who loves the island-based machinations of Survivor: Samoa (Nine, Tuesdays, 7.30pm); his eight-year-old son who squeals with delight at the mud-based slapstick of Wipeout (Nine, Saturdays, 6.30pm); and even the dog, who is a big fan of freaked-out cats on Funniest Home Videos (Nine).

I quite enjoy competitive reality shows; they can be incredibly compelling viewing. In my opinion, they are as valid a form of narrative television as a scripted comedy or drama. I like to think of a scripted show as a painting, where disparate elements are arranged like brush strokes to make a fine piece of drama such as Mad Men (Movie Extra) or True Blood (Showcase). Reality television is more like a sculpture, where an exciting story is chiselled out of a giant slab of videotape featuring the desperate behaviour of money-hungry contestants on The Amazing Race, or my boyfriend's current summer love, Survivor. It's about people stranded on a tropical island, competing for money through physical challenges and psychological exploitation.

Survivor is one of those reality shows that can be sublime or substandard, depending on the casting. This 19th season, Survivor: Samoa, features one of the greatest villains to grace the show since the hate-target of the original season, Richard Hatch.

Survivor: Samoa's villain is a swarthy garden gnome by the name of Russell, who is already a multi-millionaire and owner of an oil company but competing for the million-dollar prize nonetheless. Host Jeff Probst constantly reminds the contestants that they are playing for that magical million. The cash frenzy instils in the islanders not only a greed-based contempt for each other but it gives them the miraculous ability to become absolutely abhorrent human beings. I was horrified when they ganged up on Shambo, who was more mullet than woman.

As a counterpoint to the backstabbing and manipulation, the physical challenges on the island are simply ludicrous. Early in the two-part episode, I got to see the contestants competing on a bowling alley, a particular obsession of American television it would seem.

Hilariously, the bowling alley, ball and pins looked like they had been constructed by Gilligan and the Professor. Later on, the survivors had to play an elaborate game of giant coconut Ker-Plunk — if they pulled out the wrong cord, a cascade of coconuts would tumble to the ground.

How Probst maintains a straight face and the producers have the gall to play their scary pirate music while this kind of nonsense unfolds, I have no idea.

Thankfully, the people in charge of Wipeout are not so self-important. This is basically a show where deluded Americans agree to traverse an outlandish obstacle course, risking humiliation and injury, in the quest for $50,000. The producers know their show is ridiculous and they behave accordingly, which is probably why it appeals so much to boys of an age in the single digits. I have never seen a child in such paroxysms of laughter as when watching a girl bouncing off a giant ball only to kick herself in the head before falling in mud.

Wipeout this week had a "Cheerleaders v Couch Potatoes" theme or, as we would call it in Australia, "Bimbos v Boombahs".

There was plenty of opportunity for Wipeout to forgo the silliness and bring in the scary music. One of the couch potatoes grabbed on to the skirt of a cheerleader — ostensibly to maintain balance but, with a sombre voiceover and ominous soundtrack, he could easily have been indicted for sexual harassment. If they slowed down the replays on Wipeout and dropped the slapstick sound effects, it could turn into a WorkCover commercial about spinal injuries. I don't think, however, there is any serious way to interpret someone falling over in a waterfall of sports drink.

What makes both Survivor and Wipeout enjoyable is their innate ability to prey on the frailty of human existence; our weaknesses, both emotional and physical.

Whether highlighted by pirate music or faux-sport commentary, watching people hurt themselves from the comfort of a couch is a truly voyeuristic experience. Perhaps my dog has the right idea, because there is no more pure manifestation of human frailty than on Funniest Home Videos. All accompanied by hilarious boi-oing noises.