Jewish World Review July 20, 2001 / 29 Sivan, 5761

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

Success of 'Fear Factor' gives reason to fear --
IN the 5 weeks since its premiere, NBC's Fear Factor has provoked some of the most impassioned, unanimous critical response in the entire history of American popular culture.

Barbara Phillips of The Wall Street Journal declared that it might be the ''most depressing, nauseating and just plain disgusting prime-time series to date,'' while Robert Bianco of USA TODAY described the show as perhaps ''the most vile program ever to air on a major network.'' In The Washington Post, Tom Shales hailed the program as ''a sickening exercise in cruelty and venality . . . rotten and despicable'' while Linda Stasi in the New York Post anointed it ''the dumbest show any network ever thought up.''

Such superlatives failed to discourage eager viewers from tuning in to this witless competition that offered youthful contestants a grand prize of $50,000 for lying in coffins with 400 biting rats, or allowing galloping horses to drag them through the muddy streets of a Western town.

Perhaps the controversy surrounding Fear Factor contributed to its solid ratings success: It won its 8 p.m.-9 p.m. time slot in its Monday night debut last month, besting all other network offerings with an impressive 13 share.

What does this sort of utterly undeserved triumph say about the state of TV or the direction of American culture in general?

For one thing, the popularity of Fear Factor reminds us that the public pays scant attention to the informed opinions of professional critics. Horrible reviews couldn't keep people from watching the show, any more than negative notices for Pearl Harbor or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider could prevent those heavily hyped, embarrassing ''event'' pictures from scoring big box-office numbers in their opening weekends.

This skepticism toward journalistic authority figures might be a healthy sign, but no one should feel encouraged by the public embrace of the contrived sadism at the heart of Fear Factor's appeal. Before leading contestants to their ordeals in the notorious ''Rat Pit'' segment, the show's host, Joe Rogan, proudly announced that the experience ''may very well haunt your dreams for the rest of your life.''

This permanent impact seems unlikely, however, since neither the contestants, nor any members of the network audience, face a realistic prospect of ever again being locked in a box with hundreds of gnawing rodents.

It's also hard to imagine another situation in which you'd be placed upon a slippery car suspended from a giant crane high above a huge dam, asked to crawl over its hood to retrieve an ignition key taped to the grill, then ordered to claw through the window into the driver's seat, as if to start the vehicle in midair. With their safety wires and Hollywood staging, these showy stunts place less meaningful demands, and offer fewer real risks, than the challenges ordinary Americans face at work and at home.

An element in the second episode of Fear Factor helped place this phenomenon in context. One test faced by competitors involved their exposure to a mausoleum and close contact with several corpses. A few generations ago, when many Americans died at home and might be interred in neighborhood graveyards, such an experience would hardly seem shocking; normal people went through direct experiences with death.

By the same token, some of today's inner-city residents hardly need a sleazy TV game to provide them with the ''excitement'' of facing hungry rats. A contestant from New York bowed out of the competition for precisely that reason, saying he'd seen plenty of vermin in his own neighborhood, so he saw no point at all in the televised test.

The fact that so many of us turn to the artificial and bizarre situations on Fear Factor as a source of thrills and frights highlights the extent to which our personal lives have become pampered, protected and predictable. It's tough to imagine our immigrant or pioneer grandparents feeling so bored with real-world challenges that they'd need to watch money-hungry fools jump from one speeding semitrailer to another.

The celebrated ''greatest generation'' found enough ''fear factor'' in overcoming the Depression and conquering fascism; they could hardly feel impressed by the silly risks portrayed in a freak show that wears the misleading label of ''reality TV.''

As a matter of fact, all of the new ''reality shows'' emphasize appallingly unnatural trials -- such as eating insects from a bowl in a tightly supervised ''desert island'' environment (Survivor), or being tied for a brief period to amorous strangers of the opposite sex (Chains of Love), or visiting a resort inhabited exclusively by gorgeous seducers and seductresses (Temptation Island).

The desire to watch the far-fetched frolics of Fear Factor arises from the boredom that prevails among most Americans. Lacking in desperate life-and-death challenges in our own lives, we eagerly watch a phony facsimile of such demands presented to us by the tube.

In his prophetic book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Robert Bork declared: ''Despite complaints, often politically motivated, about the economic hardships endured today by the American people, it is blindingly obvious that standards of living, even among the poorest, are far above any previous level in this or any other nation's history. Affluence brings with it boredom. . . . A life centered on consumption will . . . be devoid of meaning. Persons so afflicted will seek sensation as a palliative, and that today's culture offers in abundance.''

The problem with people who feel chronically bored is that they themselves become unbearably boring. And the biggest drawback to the grotesque and fantastic diversions designed to rouse them from their stupor is that those entertainments become the most boring ordeals of them all.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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