Game shows and personal dignity have never had the friendliest of relationships. They’re probably more like mortal enemies, with game shows as the sadistic dystopian empire and dignity as the underdog hero unable to sway the masses to his cause. Or, depending on the show, as the helpless orphan crushed under the boots of the faceless legions as an example to would-be underdog heroes.
I used to watch Candid Camera with my family when I was younger, but soon stopped out of pity for those poor, unsuspecting passersby, caught unawares in their most vulnerable moments on display for our entertainment. I may have been being overly sensitive. After all, the show has been on and off the air for the better part of a century, I would wager that it was actually fairly benign compared to similar shows today. (The lack of Ashton Kutcher probably didn’t hurt, either.)
If the mass of Facebook groups on the subject is any indication, our generation consists largely of experts on the history of humiliating game shows, having been the target audience of the slime-rich Nickelodeon lineup of the ’90s. In recent years, however, the game show has been overshadowed by its even more dictatorial and ruthless cousin: the reality show. The two formats have been steadily converging, culminating in their only-slightly inbred offspring on I Survived a Japanese Game Show. I guess it saves time if one can simultaneously overdose on melodramatic talking heads and surreal self-destruction in the same time slot — and surreal it is.
A cursory search on YouTube or the right satellite television channel will illustrate that the Japanese have an imagination for extreme situations that puts most American television to shame. We have foam hammers and slime-covered slides. They have contestants playing soccer dressed as produce and senior citizens gumming people on the ear. I’m amazed that they’ve developed a thriving auto manufacturing sector without succumbing to the urge to install chili-pepper-filled airbags.
I’ve been following a show called Ninja Warrior (originally televised as Sasuke in Japan) for a while now, in which challengers face a brutal obstacle course in an effort to demonstrate their physical prowess. I’ve also started watching Wipeout, an American show with a similar premise. In itself, it’s not a new idea for game shows, but whether or not the challengers are meant to fail, how readily, and how often defines the show’s tone and type. On one end of the spectrum, you have Ninja Warrior, which venerates physical excellence and allows exactly zero mistakes. On the other, you have Wipeout, which is basically the exact opposite. Strangely enough, I get a much bigger kick out of watching the latter, even if I have greater respect for those who succeed at the former.
Why do we so enjoy seeing dignity sacrificed at the foot of the network gods? Why does watching people behaving normally in odd situations make me feel queasy while watching people take automated boxing gloves to the face make me giddy? Is voluntary suffering that much funnier than involuntary suffering? More disturbingly, is genuine pain that much more entertaining than mild awkwardness? All compelling questions with complex implications. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just recently purchased some Looney Tunes DVDs that need watching. Apparently, anthropomorphized animals taking boxing gloves to the face has been indisputably funny for decades.