Thursday, September 18, 2003

Joe Shmoe Show

I have become addicted to this new reality show on the Spike network. The premise of the show is that one contestant (Matt) thinks he's on a reality show (The Lap of Luxury) in which he lives in a mansion with nine other players and competes with them for $100,000, with the usual goofy games and eliminations by voting that we've come to expect from this sort of show. The catch is that all the other "contestants" are actors who are playing stereotypical reality show contestants (e.g. the rich bitch, the gay guy, the crusty old veteran, etc.). So the show is operating on several different levels, and the places where different levels intersect make for some interesting TV. It has all the plotting, alliance building, humiliating games and ridiculous ceremonies that you might see on any reality show. But we also get to see the actors talking to the director and writers about how things are going and how to redirect the action so that the planned stories happen, as well as the fun of watching the actors improv their interactions with Matt and attempt to manipulate him to suit the writers' plans (some of the most enjoyable moments happen when the actors screw up their stories and panic that Matt will realize what's going on). Of course, just as Matt is "playing" the role of himself in The Lap of Luxury, the actors are also playing themselves in The Joe Shmoe Show (in addition to the characters they portray in The Lap of Luxury). It's the inevitable postmodern response to the reality show phenomenon - the meta reality show!

The idea is brilliant and the execution is hysterical. The show Matt thinks he's on is a low rent commentary on American ideas about class - the "luxury" life that Matt and the actors are living is less old money and more Wal-mart clerk who won the lottery (for example, each contestant is represented at the elimination ceremony by a Franklin mint style "collector plate," which is broken when he or she leaves the show). The humiliations the contestants endure are so ridiculous as to seem like parodies, and yet still seem plausible given the over the top nature of reality TV.

The most fascinating thing about the show is the way that Matt immediately leaps into the drama, unconsciously playing his role with as much dedication as the actors are consciously playing theirs. On the third day, the crusty veteran is voted off, and Matt sobs hysterically after the elimination ceremony. He's known the guy three days! And even if they truly shared a deep and abiding connection, the old man's still alive - Matt can look him up after the show is over, if he just has to see him again. Paralleling Matt's over involvement is the actors' inability to hold themselves aloof from the proceedings. Even knowing that this is all a set up, they still find themselves connecting emotionally with Matt and with each other, and taking everything more seriously than you'd think they would. It's all incredibly funny and also painfully embarrassing.

Check it out - they're rerunning the first 3 episodes fairly regularly on the Spike network, so you should be able to get caught up quickly.

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