Fear Factor Returns


Tonight, the ‘classic’ show Fear Factor returns to NBC.

This is probably where you would expect me to talk about how terrible this show is, how it represents the nadir of American television, the moment when “Reality TV” took its steepest dive and forever drenched our lives with shit and stupidity.

Au contraire.  There are only two ‘reality’ tv shows I have ever watched in my life.  One is ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and the other is ‘Fear Factor.’  Neither of these shows have ever been ‘appointment television’ for me and I will never list them as favorites.  But when I do watch them, I’m mostly entertained (I wish they’d skip all the personal stories and background and just stick to the dancing and the stunts, respectively).

The announcement of Fear Factor’s return has been met with chagrin and pronouncements of television’s ill and irredeemable fall from grace (well, in the comment section of the New York Times, at least).

This is silly.

When shows like Fear Factor were first coming out, cultural critics were proclaiming that smart television was dead, that Americans were all content to consume whatever lowest common denominator shlock was thrust upon them.  The bottom had fallen out.

Yet, in the years since 2001, when Fear Factor debuted, television has proven to be an oasis for intelligent, finely-crafted works of art.  Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, The Wire, Louie, Rescue Me, Parks and Recreation and Community are all finely-crafted American shows that I’ve personally enjoyed in the last decade, all examples of television’s great asset as a medium (there are plenty of other shows I’ve never seen that could probably be added to this list).

So, those who predicted Fear Factor would prove the end of intelligence on television (or even just network television) were clearly wrong.

But, I’m not even willing to concede that Fear Factor is a bad show.  Whereas Reality TV is largely mind-numbing drivel (I have no idea why anyone would care what a Kardashian does), Fear Factor was never trying to be reality.  While shows like The Hills and The Bachelor attempted to convince their audiences that they were portraying real life and love (and marginalizing both by doing so), Fear Factor was merely interested in entertaining people with bizarre stunts and eccentric contestants.

It’s a game show.  For all its bells and whistles (gross outs and exploding cars), Fear Factor is essentially the same genre of television as Wheel of Fortune or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.  The latter tests trivial knowledge, while the former tests personal fortitude.*

Is Fear Factor ridiculous, over the top, exploitation television?  You betcha.  But it’s not claiming to be anything else.  It is just a show where people willingly put themselves through ordeals in order to make money. 

The reason Fear Factor didn’t spell the end of intelligent, scripted television is because it was never in a competition for that market.  If you’re worried about smart, hour-long dramas dying off, don’t blame Fear Factor.  Blame inexplicably popular dumb, hour-long dramas.

For the doomsday prophets who want to claim that the presence of Fear Factor (or any TV show) marks the return of a dark era in television, just remember that you have the ability to watch whatever you want.  Sometimes good shows die too young (Save Community), but that’s been happening since the beginning of television and it’s lazy to blame one show for the demise of another.  There are always far more factors at play when a good show fails (like Freaks and Geeks or Arrested Development, both shows I only watched after they were canceled).

When people decry Fear Factor, I’m reminded of those claims that video games and rap music make kids violent.  Shitty parenting makes kids violent.  (It’s actually far more complicated than that, I realize; just making a point.)

Television can be a source of mentally stimulating and thought-provoking art, just as it can also provide entertainment for our basest emotions.  Guess what:  Movies and music are the same.  Even books.  If I read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy for deep, philosophical musings, can I also read some puerile Bukowski or erotic Henry Miller?

I’m not comparing Bukowski or Miller to Fear Factor, I’m merely saying that a well-rounded reader enjoys literature of all forms (I personally wouldn’t want to have a conversation with someone who only read Joyce and Faulkner; it’d feel interminable).  I think a well-rounded television viewer can enjoy high-minded dramas and comedies and still have a soft spot for sophomoric shows like Fear Factor and Jackass (in fact, Jackass has its critical defenders these days).  Enjoying caviar and oysters doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy chocolate chip cookies.

But regardless of whether or not you’ll ever watch an episode of Fear Factor, I think it’s important that we as a culture stop getting our hyperbolic panties in a twist.  Fear Factor is not equivalent to the Gladiators or watching live executions.  It is a show where willing adults eat live spiders or get blown up real good.  And that’s all it has ever claimed to be.

Claiming that Fear Factor represents a flaw in society is no different than claiming that gay equality is what’s wrong with our society.  It’s just taking something you personally dislike and making it the scapegoat for mostly imagined problems.

The next time you have the thought, “This is what’s wrong with the world,” stop and ask yourself, “Did I just blame the problems of 7 billion people on one thing that I personally don’t like?” and maybe you’ll gain some perspective.

*There was always the argument that the show wasn’t about facing fears, just about being grossed out.  But what is being grossed out if not a fear response?  In the clip posted above, there is no actual danger to the contestant in eating a live spider, so it really is testing her irrational fear of touching a spider (and consuming it).

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