The wacky world of television

On American game shows, you answer questions and win money. In the rest of the world, you get naked and bob for false teeth in a bucket of pig eyeballs.

Published March 13, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The winner was naked, unshaven and half-mad -- sprung from 18 months of imprisonment in a locked studio apartment. He was a star, lofted into celebrity by "Susunu! Denpa Sho-nen," a perverse Japanese TV show that makes "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" look like 32 cents without even trying. The contestant's only prize for surviving a year and a half of solitary confinement: fame itself.

Most of us know that in transportation, health care, social services and gracious living, the United States lags behind the entire civilized world and France. But those are mere trifles. Television! Movies! Consumer brands! It's entertainment that makes the States great. Let the entire world chuckle at the American Comedy, so long as it keeps chuckling at our American comedies. We export not only jobs but dreams. Whom we cannot bomb, we entertain -- and famously. So it's shocking that in the very midst of the biggest domestic game-show boom since the 1950s, America has fallen unaccountably behind the rest of the world. Once proud colossi -- jackpot winners -- our game shows have become third-place contestants on the world stage.

Like the venerable Harley-Davidson vee-twin, underneath all the modern paint jobs and trim packages, the basic design of our shows hasn't changed since Dwight D. Eisenhower. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is a monster hit, heralded as the program that saved network television. But at essence, it's only a '50s-style quiz bowl enlivened by a single contemporary twist: more money. "Greed" adds late-20th century avarice and betrayal to the same basic formula; and previous seasons' programs, such as Lifetime's "Debt" and Comedy Central's "Win Ben Stein's Money," employ the modern, cynical innovations of having contestants battle to go home empty-handed, or to walk away with a piece of someone else's pile. Significantly, though, except for "Greed," all of the above shows were created by a single evil foreigner, Michael Davies, who hiked "Millionaire" directly from his native Britain.

There are, it's true, more original concepts than these on domestic TV. The Food Network's "Ready Set Cook" features chefs -- celebrity and otherwise -- competing against the clock and one another; CBS's upcoming "Survivor" will feature 16 souls marooned on a deserted island, "Lord of the Flies" style, of whom only one will remain to claim the prize. But both of these shows were ripped off from overseas as well. "Ready Set Cook" is a direct adaptation of the British "Ready Steady Cook," whose own lineage traces to the Japanese hit (and domestic cult favorite) "Ryori no Tetsujin," or "Iron Chef." "Survivor" was lifted wholesale from the scandalous Swedish (and later Pan-Scandinavian) show "Expedition Robinson."

It's not uncommon for game-show ideas to migrate around the world. Since the shows are dirt-cheap to produce, and since their appeal transcends boundaries of language and culture, production companies from all the major TV markets have long trolled foreign airwaves for new development ideas. In the past, though, the trade balance generally favored the States. "Wheel of Fortune," for example, spawned a multitude of overseas editions, each with its own local interpretation of Pat Sajak and Vanna White. The canonical quiz-show format seen in "Millionaire" and dozens of other shows, with their coifed hosts and garish sets, seems to have appeared in every country that ever boasted a TV network, including the prize-tastic Soviet Union. Now, however, we seem to have reached a point at which anything even remotely original has to come from abroad.

That's bad enough on its own, but even if we're importing the most groundbreaking ideas -- which we're not -- we have a hard time reproducing foreign shows without watering them down into a thin gruel, until everything bizarre, risky and ultimately valuable about them is lost.

"Ready Set Cook" is basically a harmless, quirky program on which people trot around improvising sensible dishes that you, the audience, could make at home. Conversely, "Iron Chef" is a mad circus of culinary terror, where professional chefs use all the powers at their disposal to beat a set of resident champions at Chinese, Japanese and French haute cuisine.

Next to "Ready Set Cook's" go-kart derby, "Iron Chef" is Formula One racing: There's a certain architectonic quality about it that fascinates you because you can't even imagine doing it at home. As with Formula One, you can't always tell what you're watching, but you can be confident that the competition is taking place at levels far beyond those that you can perceive. "He's throwing out the apricot sauce!" the "Iron Chef" commentator exclaims, as the crowd bursts into a stunned roar. "The foie gras! He's heading for the foie gras!" Whatever he's doing with that crhme brulie, you know you'd better stay the hell out of his way.

It remains to be seen what will happen on "Survivor," which is scheduled to run for 13 weeks this summer. But the concept has been childproofed considerably since the show first ran in Scandinavia in 1997. The original Swedish "Expedition Robinson," conceived by noted idea man Bob Geldof, was a serious game, designed to foster group cooperation and to serve as a miniature laboratory for democracy. During each episode, the players would convene in a council to choose one member who had to leave the island. At the end, when only two remained, all the eliminated players would get together and vote for a winner.

But before the show could be aired, a jilted player (apparently a disturbed Bosnian refugee) threw himself in front of a train. If only Rick Rockwell had anything like his courage! In the ensuing scandal, the show was temporarily banned and one of the producers fired from the network. Further, the media claimed that many of the players had become scrawny and malnourished, and that the environment of the show elicited every possible sort of antisocial behavior, short of cannibalism and chasing one another around with spears, from the contestants.

In 1998, the Danes and the Norwegians got involved as well, and both the game and the selection process for contestants were modified to ensure that nobody would end up dead. But the American "Survivor," playing it safer still, has only 16 contestants as opposed to the 48 of the Scandinavian series. Its big innovation: more money! And greed! The winner will take home a million bucks, as opposed to the roughly $33,000 the Scandinavian game paid out. And the promotional material makes it clear that the U.S. show isn't even nominally about democracy. Rather, it's about capitalism. You -- yes, you -- might be the sole survivor! You could outlast all the other contestants and become a millionaire! Losers! Winners! Lots of loot!

Even so, unless the players launch a mutiny against CBS and declare an island republic, the attenuated American version of the show will probably be to the Swedish original what MTV's tepid "The Real World" is to Europe's genuinely edgy "Big Brother." On the wildly popular Dutch program, a group of nine strangers, ranging in age from the teens to the early 40s, was locked into a suburban house for 100 days and given $85 a week for supplies, including food. As with "Expedition Robinson," the idea was to set up a petri dish for group cooperation -- only this time in a panoptic fashion, with cameras and microphones covering every possible location.

Following a general trend, the players on "Big Brother" voted every few weeks to kick out a stooge, and at the end, the stooges assembled to vote for a winner, who left the premises $120,000 richer. On "The Real World," of course, the action is heavily staged. Plus, you're allowed to leave the house, and the cameras don't follow you into the bathroom. In the "Big Brother" universe, you were locked in, with no escape at all from the prying eyes of millions of TV and Internet viewers.

Several countries, including Britain and Canada, have expressed interest in hiking the "Big Brother" idea, but so far there's been no discernible interest from America. The show may just be too extreme. We like to talk about our domestic entertainment industry as though it were the world's beacon of crassness and meretricious display, but the crassness of our shows is more in the attitudes they display than in their actual content -- whereas for the rest of the world, it's the other way around.

Our fairly mild "Real World" practically radiates voyeurism and Gen-Y psychopathology: Its participants habitually mug and pose for the cameras as though they'd always thought of themselves as being on TV, as though the cameras inside were always turned on. Meanwhile, the doughty, friendly Dutch were somehow able to whip up a reality-TV show for the younger demographic that involved totalitarian mind control and bathroom cams ("Big Brother" was on the youth-oriented Veronica Network), without having it seem especially sordid or exploitative. The difference is that the Dutch show, much like "Expedition Robinson" and "Ryori no Tetsujin," had an essential playfulness that allowed truly bizarre and risky things to go on without dragging the viewer into a philosophical struggle over the principles of watching and of being watched. The show knew all along -- and its participants and viewers knew all along, as more atomized, more socially disconnected Americans seem often to forget -- that no matter how real or heavy things might become, it was only a TV show.

But that was just the Dutch. Spain has the demented game show "El Gran Juego de la Oca," whose nudity, innuendo and horrifying endurance contests (players have to escape from flaming coffins and bomb-rigged cages) would look like the end of civilization over here, while to the Spanish, apparently, it's all just good fun. England's "Endurance UK" has players bob for false teeth in buckets of pig eyeballs and eat quiches full of maggots. In America, that would be an all-out assault on the public mind and a possible herald of the apocalypse. Over there, where much of the public seems actually to have a mind, it's just some stupid show.

The gold standard in totally nonimportable game shows was set by the Far East. As, again, with the venerable Harley, while we've been puttering happily along on our Eisenhower technology, the relentlessly social Japanese have developed stuff that's faster and more dangerous than anything we can understand, let alone duplicate in our domestic factories. Unblinking cinema viriti? Public humiliation? Nudity? Mad psychological experiments? Torture for prizes? "Endurance UK" is merely a childish adaptation of a Japanese original.

That original was "Za Gaman," an '80s production that, while fairly obscure in Japan, became familiar to many U.S. viewers through a set of clips that made the rounds of our wacky home-video TV programs (which are themselves a concept thieved from a crazed Japanese original). The show featured groups of ordinary people sent around the world to undergo a series of endurance contests. But in contrast to "Endurance UK," in which the game is generally about screwing up your courage to do something distasteful, "Za Gaman" was generally about keeping up your resolve so that you didn't let down your team.

One episode brought the victims to a frozen northern location, where they were made to drink a stupendous amount of beer -- and then stand out in the snow with their heads spinning, jiggling their knees in torment as their bladders swelled. One after another, the contestants would give up and start running to the toilets, only to be pulled back by conscience and resume hopping in place.

In another episode, shot in the desert, the victims did headstands in the hot sun, leaning against a sweltering piece of metal while show officials assisted by focusing magnifying glasses on their nipples. In two others, people were rolled down steep hills in barrels and made to walk over a pit of alligators across a bridge of rolling logs. And at every juncture, the first contestants to quit were eliminated, banished back into the real world with (surprisingly, to our eyes) little harm done.

Perhaps the ultimate of the endurance-and-embarrassment genre was reached last year on the popular comedy show "Susunu! Denpa Sho-nen," successor to "Za Gaman" and the home of Japan's version of comedian Tom Green, portly Kunihiro Matsumura. For a segment called "Sweepstakes Boy," a struggling young actor code-named "Nasubi" agreed to be locked naked in an empty apartment until he could win $10,000 in prizes from magazine contests -- surviving only on the prizes he won. His reward, he was told, would be fame. After 18 months of puttering around the apartment, slowly losing his mind and eating a large shipment of free dog food, Nasubi, his hair and beard grown out into a scraggly mess, was escorted victorious from his apartment and into a bare anteroom -- whose walls collapsed around him, leaving him naked and blinking in the middle of a roaring studio audience. He'd been on TV the whole time!

True to the agreement, Nasubi has since become a hugely popular celebrity, with a book on the shelves and a contract for a revival performance to be filmed in South Korea. But if the Japanese have a long-standing habit of invading Korea, it's odder to find that they've begun, sneakily, to colonize America itself. In late 1998, as the jewel of American quiz shows, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," was being readied for the journey from its native Britain across the Atlantic, "Trans-America Ultra Quiz" was snaking across the country by rail, nearly unnoticed and destined only for Japanese audiences.

This show is more hardcore than anything we can get away with here, including the short-lived '80s American version called "Ultra Quiz." Eliminated contestants were made to perform dangerous tasks, like facing down an oncoming train or riding a mule against traffic down a busy street. Each big winner got a prize that looked splendid on paper but turned out to be utterly worthless, like a private island in the Caribbean that's actually underwater for most of the year. Everyone eventually lost the game, and went home with pretty much nothing but the experience of having participated. Which makes "Trans-America Ultra Quiz" perhaps the most lifelike TV show ever created.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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