I was watching CNN’s documentary on the 1960s last night (which is interesting viewing, incidentally, if you want a quick overview of the decade), and in this particular episode it discussed how television (to paraphrase) was an escape from the darkness, fear, and unease that permeated the society at large. It was an age of zany sitcoms and upbeat variety shows while, on the evening news, the lists of American’s injured or killed in Vietnam was top news, college campuses were rioting, and black people were getting shot, bombed, sprayed with hoses, and assaulted with attack dogs all because they wanted basic human rights.
Now, everything in the latter half there should sound awfully familiar in our current era – the dead soldiers, the riots and demonstrations among the youth, and the mistreatment of African Americans marching for basic equality. What doesn’t sound familiar (at least to me) is the characterization of television as “zany.” Sure, there’s a docket of late night variety shows (though how much “variety” is present is debatable), but few of them are “zany” (with the possible exception of Jimmy Fallon). We’ve got sitcoms, too, but they have a lot less in common with The Dick VanDyke Show and Gilligan’s Island – with their “wholesome” and harmless optimism – and rely, instead, on cynicism, sarcasm, and insult comedy (look at any Chuck Lorre sitcom and despair).
As for dramas…yeesh. You know, when Dexter is one of the more optimistic offerings out there, you’ve got to step back and wonder what on Earth is wrong with us. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Expanse, The Magicians, The Walking Dead, The Blacklist, Man in the High Castle – we’re looking at a veritable who’s-who of dark, depressing, morally ambiguous, and emotionally wrenching stories that catch our collective attention. How many millions of people tuned in to watch Negan swing a baseball bat into somebody’s head, anyway?
What exactly does this say about us?
Now, mind you, I enjoy a lot of these shows. I like moral ambiguity and complex stories without clear resolutions. I do wonder, however, if all this misery, pain, and negativity saturating our entertainment is good for us on an emotional level. As the world gets darker and more disturbing around us with each passing year, wouldn’t it be more natural for us to go all-in with shows like The Good Place, which aspire to a generally positive tone and outlook? It seems this is what Supergirl and The Flash are trying to do, anyway, but (at least personally) something about those shows leaves me flat. They just lack a certain…darkness that I’ve come to expect.
And that last there is what vaguely worries me. Granted, it isn’t like I’ve performed an in-depth survey here and my sense is only that – a sense – but one wonders if we’ve become inured to the horrors of the world. That we don’t have the heady optimism of the post-war boom to ride on to remind us that life doesn’t have to suck and that America can, indeed, be a good place again. When was the last great era of American optimism in our collective lives? The 1990s, right? That’s twenty years gone, folks. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a barely remembered dream. Now it’s all zombie apocalypses and post-modern deconstructions of old sitcom tropes. It’s beheadings and ritualized cruelty. Our “escape” isn ‘t so much an escape as it is a funhouse mirror reflection of our real lives.
Then again, you could make the argument that this is actually healthy. That we aren’t sticking our heads in the sand; that we’re going to face our problems head-on for once. It could go either way, I suppose: either we will face down the dangers of our era with greater passion than before, or instead we will merely shrug and say “that’s life” and let the machine grind us up.
OR maybe I’m just hand-wringing over nothing. I am sure of one thing though: nobody wants or needs a Suicide Squad sequel. Nobody.
This summer/fall, ABC aired a new reality TV program entitled The Quest. The idea was to make a competitive reality TV show, but have it set in a fantasy world. The show boasted high production values and a new spin on an old trope. As a fantasy enthusiast, I was intrigued and I watched a few episodes – namely the pilot, one somewhere in the middle, and the finale.
It was lame.
I was disappointed, but I suppose I wasn’t surprised. The words ‘creativity’ and ‘competitive reality TV’ are almost exclusive terms, and so The Quest was essentially the same as Big Brother, Survivor, or any number of other by-the-numbers reality shows, except with a costume design department and a special effects budget. You had twelve contestants (sorry – 12 paladins) compete in a series of medieval-themed challenges to earn immunity or prevent their own elimination (“banishment”). Around this was the trappings of a ‘plot’ – a really basic ‘bad guy conquering the world’ scenario wherein the winner (“One True Hero”) uses the sunspear to defeat him (but really doesn’t, because that whole scene was staged anyway).
There was a moment, in the pilot, where I thought the show would be really something fun to watch. It was early in the episode and the contestants had just been brought to “Everrealm” and were confined in a courtyard while the locals figured out what to do with them (i.e. the contestants were forced into each other’s company to get to know each other prior to the game really starting). One guy, really playing up the setting, said “we should escape!” I immediately imagined a show in which the show designers wanted stuff like this to happen – things that seem to be spontaneous acts that, in actuality, were envisioned by the producers and allowed to happen. I saw the paladins scaling the low walls and going off on some kind of real adventure.
But then everybody in the courtyard said “no”. They sat around, the guards got them and escorted them to a bunch of rooms, and that was it. Cue the boring for the next however-many episodes. Challenge, chatter, Challenge, elimination, confessional booth, repeat. Over and over and over.
Me, I’m sick of that nonsense. I think this concept could be something way more fun and way more interesting than what ABC gave us. To do it, though, we need to change a lot of things.
1) Everybody Knows It Isn’t Real, So Don’t Try So Hard!
One of the stupid parts of the show was watching these people pretend they were in a different world when everybody (even them) obviously knew it wasn’t real. As these people were not actors, it was not convincing. Ever LARP-ed? Think of the worst LARP with the worst role-players ever, and it was like that. We can’t make emotional connections to a contest we know is fake. We can’t be amazed by turns of events we see coming a mile off as part of the show’s structure.
What you need to do here is admit that the show isn’t real and proceed from there. The stakes need to be something concrete and plot cannot be window dressing for this to work. How to do that? Well, don’t require your participants to pretend – let them be themselves, say what they want, act how they choose. Give them something to actually care about. Me? I’d set this game up like a dungeon crawl, essentially. I’d have a big-ass maze with a series of confounding puzzles and ‘monsters’, but the treasure would be REAL. Like, actual cash. Gold bars. Fancy jewelry. The keys to a new car. Suddenly, the people don’t have to act – they WANT to slay the ‘giant’, since that means getting a bunch of gold coins worth a couple thousand dollars. They don’t want to be eliminated, since that means no more treasure. Basically, this is the same motivation that drives a lot of RPG groups.
2) Take a Cue From RPGs
Don’t have a pack of idiots who are all paladins but cannot actually affect their environment. Set up ground rules and split the contestants into ‘parties’ of four. Fighter (has a fake sword, can defeat monsters), Wizard (give him spell packs, let him affect the environment with them), Rogue (give him a cape that makes him invisible to NPCs, give him a sneak-attack ability that works when he tags somebody on the back), and Priest (give him the ability to heal and also fight). Give them high-quality foam weapons. Set the ground rules and tell the audience what they are. Let the parties loose in the dungeon. Have them race each other for treasure.
3) No Structured Elimination
Don’t eliminate somebody every episode – it’s boring. Only eliminate them when they are ‘killed’ by the obstacles. Even then, let the bad guys capture team members and force them to try and save them. In fact, you could get some pretty interesting team alliances going if several members of several parties are captured. Can the wizard and the rogue get back their fighter without borrowing the fighter from another party? What will they give them to make them help? How can they be trusted? See? Suddenly there are real stakes at play, here!
4) Interactive Environment
To do this, you need to build a playground – a big, complicated playground. Think of the whole show like an elaborate dungeon in a 3D platformer (like the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time). To get through, parties need to find tools to open doors or navigate passageways. They need to defeat monsters to claim treasure. All parties can work at cross-purposes for this – maybe some will find the key and another will find the sword that kills the troll, but neither party can succeed unless they can do both things. The finale? Well, after the inevitable casualties happen, you’ll be left with the remnants of a few parties who will all have to work together to claim the main prize–a couple hundred thousand dollars split among those who make it to the end. Assuming anyone does.
To me, that sounds like a reality show I’d watch. Then again, what do I know? I’m just a fantasy author.