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April 11, 2002: The other side of real

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Last night we rented and watched Series 7, which is a spoof on the reality shows that have become so popular lately, such as Survivor, or Big Brother. The people who were portrayed were ‘real’ people, and the editing, the voice-overs, the music clips, the little interviews were all reminiscent of how these “reality” shows have been set up. The content, however, was slightly more extreme than anything the current reality shows have yet to portray. In The Contenders, the show covered in this film, six people are chosen at random (they don’t apply, and they also cannot refuse to participate, no matter what), and then the "game” is that they’re required to kill each other, until there is only one left alive. Each person is assigned a cameraman, who follows them throughout the days that follow, filming the participants as they kill, or are killed.

The premise of the show was disturbing enough, but what was perhaps more unnerving is how eerily true to life the film made it seem. Six people, chosen at random, yanked from their ordinary lives and told that they must either kill or be killed, simply to provide an over-the-top form of entertainment. And all the while, the producers subtly manipulated their victims to make it that much more exciting. It provided tidbits about each unwilling participant – the man dying of cancer; the woman who was pregnant and near-term; the 18-year old female student; the ultra-religious nurse. The edgy filming, the matter-of-fact killings, and the mingled scorn and fascination displayed by the family members and spectators for those who were “chosen” to participate only made it more compelling to watch. Each segment of the series ended with previews for the next, and the way the ‘game’ was presented was exactly like all the existing reality shows – raw, a bit disconnected, and in this case, unnerving in its twisted version of 'true' life. I found myself silently rooting for one of the participants, hoping she would win, even as I cringed back from the knowledge that in order for her to win, the others would have to die.

What disturbed me most about this film is that, while “reality” television has not yet reached these extremes, it has become more and more obvious that some producers will stop at nothing, all in the name of entertainment. Crude home videos of horrible accidents are displayed on prime time television, accompanied by dramatic music and the deep tones of an announcer who narrates the clips as if these were acted out by stunt men or women who could leave the scene alive as soon as the camera stops rolling, instead of real people wounded or killed in the scenes that unfold. People allow their lives to be manipulated and twisted on camera, or allow their every move to be filmed and then edited and pieced together to provide whatever perception of them the producers want to create, regardless of whether the result is true or not.

In the movie Natural Born Killers, two serial killers become the darlings of the media, which sensationalizes them and their crimes, glossing over the sheer brutality of the murders being committed. It is only when the camera men themselves are faced with the fact that they may also be killed by these two cold-blooded killers that it begins to sink in that perhaps this “reality” isn’t quite as entertaining as they have been portraying it all along. While using the same theme, Series 7 shows a different side to this desensitization of violence by the media, by exposing the unsettling truth about the illusion of "reality" television. By setting up murder as nothing more than a game, the producers of the "reality" show portrayed in the movie reduce a violent crime to little more than an edgy bit of drama, edited to fit a half-hour time slot during prime-time television. Those who watch it can conveniently forget that when the show ends, those people they cheer or jeer for are forced to keep on playing a game or living a life that they, unlike the watching public, cannot escape simply by clicking a button on the remote control. And those who win or lose in these “reality” shows do so in a reality that was never actually real at all.

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