Ache and angst are the big looping signature of television this millennium. In other words, suffering.
It's hardly new on the small screen. One of my most vivid childhood memories of television's infancy is daytime host Jack Bailey's practiced “Awwwwww” when hearing teary sad sacks pour out their hard-luck woes on Queen for a Day while vying for gifts (a fur, a fridge) to make the pain go away.
The distress factor has proliferated since then, with suffering now deep in the marrow of prime time, especially with the waning of traditional half-hour comedies. Like zombies in Night of the Living Dead, the anguished just keep coming.
No one on the planet suffers more than the tormented shrink of Showtime's new Huff, who went to pieces when a troubled young patient produced a gun and blew himself away right before our hero's eyes.
Suffering mingles with sex on ABC's new hit, Desperate Housewives. It also permeates ABC's other new hit, Lost, whose message is that your ability to survive a jet crash improves if you're a gorgeous thirtysomething who can still look great while stranded indefinitely on a remote island with little food and water and a dwindling supply of sunblock.
Talk about misery, while waiting to be rescued, these kids battle sea urchins, wild boars, polar bears, unseen monsters, personal demons and, even deadlier, scripts that challenge reason.
Suffering remains a central theme of many “reality” shows, too, including those now in ratings free fall. Take NBC's Fear Factor. (Please!) Its tortured souls regularly go through hell in courageous pursuit of a 50-grand payoff. The week I tuned in, the poor babies were holding their noses and downing putrid shots of blended fish eyes, beetles, maggots and worms.
“It was the most piercing, disgusting filth I have ever ingested in my entire life,” one of them moaned. “I just wanted to survive.”
Speaking of that, suffering also epitomizes Vanuatu, the island hangout for this season's Survivor rivals backstabbing their way toward fame and a $1 million prize on CBS. An episode I watched had the Yasur and Lapevi tribes sloshing and crawling through the mud in competition for steaks. Afterward, one member of the losing team began to weep. Said another, “Damn, I wanted a steak.” And another: “We could have used that protein.”
No protein? Oh, the horror.
That recalled an episode of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, a grand, hilarious send-up where Larry David's guests for dinner included Solly, an elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor, and Colby, a Survivor survivor who recalled the terrible ordeal of being deprived of basic comforts.
Colby: “So here we are in a region of Australia where, of the 10 most deadly snakes, nine of them inhabit this region.”
Solly: “I was in a concentration camp. You never suffered vun minute in your life compared with vut I went through.”
Colby: “I'm saying we spent 42 days trying to survive. We had very little rations. No snacks.”
Solly: “Vut you talking snacks. Ve didn't eat sometimes for a week, for a month.”
Colby: “Did you ever see the show?”
Solly: “Did you see our show? It was called the Holocaust.”
In other words, get a life. There is suffering, and there is suffering.
That point is made inadvertently by back-to-back pages of the current Vanity Fair. First comes a panoramic spread advertising a new Fox “reality” series, The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best, whose participants do high-altitude stunts with a $1 million payoff. The ad screams: “SUCCEED OR DIE TRYING. It's winner takes all…but first they have to survive!”
Next page, above a story on lingering peril in Afghanistan, is a photo of U.S. troops in action north of Kandahar. They'll be coming home one of these days...
But first they have to survive!
I watched another reality show recently. No gobbling worms and maggots in pursuit of $50,000 for this crowd. No muddying themselves for steaks and a cool million. No chasing big bucks with Virgin Atlantic Airways mogul Richard Branson. No whining by millionaire wannabes about minor discomforts they volunteered to endure in front of TV cameras, production crews and others who would assist them if they were in real danger.
On the screen instead was actual reality, a searing 60 Minutes report by Scott Pelley displayed the human wreckage of Darfur, a western province of Sudan where the World Health Organization estimates that 6,000 native Africans die monthly in genocide attributed to government-backed Arab militias.
There was talk of ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and starvation that night, and there were pictures of children with hollow eyes, matchstick limbs and distended lumps for bellies.
There was talk of Sudanese pouring across the border to Chad and of refugee camps all along that border. One woman said she carried her 1-year-old child for 12 days just to reach a camp. Then came two teenage brothers. They said their father, uncles and other siblings had been murdered. They said their mother was missing. They said they'd been in hiding and walking for months, living on rainwater and whatever else they could find in the foothills.
The brothers hadn't volunteered for the suffering shadowing them. I wonder if they are still alive. And if they could watch U.S. television, what they would think of Survivor.