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An ever weakening link

Culture | Have bitter soul-barings become television's last new frontier?

Issue: "Germ warfare and national security," June 2, 2001

Who is the least likely candidate for human cloning? One of you is about to leave with nothing. It's time to vote off ... the Weakest Link!"

Ah, that biting wit. Anne Robinson, host of NBC's new game show hit ,Weakest Link, has become an instant pop-culture icon, due as much to the skill of NBC's marketing team as to her dour disposition and off-the-cuff (hardly!) jibes. Much has been made of this sour Brit's nasty demeanor, and Americans seem to be divided into two camps: They love her or hate her.

Journalists, too, expend endless amounts of ink on the UK's answer to Regis Philbin, taking pains to predict the national reaction to her weekly browbeating. Yes, Ms. Robinson is rude, and her sometimes clever taunting makes her stand out among others in her profession. But the aspect of Weakest Link that deserves far more attention than its host is the common thread that links it to other recent attempts at "reality" programming. (Game shows such as this one have far more in common with Survivor than such classic mainstays as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.) Far more symptomatic than Anne Robinson's curt dismissal of banished players ("You are the weakest link. Goodbye.") is what happens immediately afterwards.

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Contestants on Weakest Link work together by correctly answering Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-style questions to build up a stash of money that a single player will eventually win. After each round, contestants eliminate one player, typically the one who has answered the fewest questions correctly. Once Ms. Robinson sends the failed contestant out with her trademark farewell, he or she is ushered into a room presumably just off the show's gladiatorial stage, and plunked down in front of a television camera. Without fail, the contestant then proceeds to make mostly juvenile attempts at rationalizing his expulsion (typically, because the other players were "afraid" to face him in future rounds) and questioning the honor or intelligence of those remaining (contestant "A" should have been voted off, because he/she doesn't know anything about anything, and, besides, has a bad attitude).

An example from a recent Weakest Link episode, after a female contestant is expelled from the show: "David should have been voted off, because he had very easy questions about pop culture [that he didn't answer correctly]. Anyone would have known them. My five-year-old would have known them." An ignorance of pop culture! The horror!

The tone of these post-execution interviews so uniformly follows this bitter model that little doubt is left about whether the contestants' responses are coached. "Tell us who should have been voted off!" "Who do you think is dumber than you?" "Tell us why!" Ms. Robinson elicits similar comments from the remaining players, as she asks each of them to explain why they cast their vote for a particular contestant.

"Reality" shows now regularly feature a contestant addressing the camera, sharing his or her "innermost thoughts" about, primarily, other players or contestants. Most reality TV programs seem to be little more than elaborate constructs to get their participants into these makeshift confessionals. The result is a sort of psychological pornography, taking prurient interest in thoughts and emotions that should never see the light of day.

These bitter soul-barings are perhaps a last new frontier for network television. Sex and violence are so commonly and freely depicted on television and in the movies that their ability to produce a sensational effect is greatly diminished.

So what's left? To get real people to say things in front of millions of viewers that build their own egos or malign the character of others, comments that in another setting would be whispered in office copy rooms or in the corner of the church fellowship hall. As with depictions of sex, when pop culture goes down a new, forbidden road, it doesn't just depict that which should be left private, but that which is patently sinful. Most of the implied sex on TV is not between married couples, after all, but between singles. And the new shows push not for kind comments, but for an emotional prostitution that is uncharitable, uncompassionate, and proud.

Competition has always produced arrogant loudmouths, but also gracious winners and-imagine this-gracious losers. Ms. Robinson is right: Losing contestants on Weakest Link do leave with nothing-not even their dignity.

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