The Dark Future of Reality TV

In the darkness of a pokey urban flat, a young man sits glued, semi-comatose, to his television. Downing a fourth glass of cheap gin he chuckles at the screaming contestants of a new reality game show.

Emerging from behind a plasticky faux industrial set, the first contestant arrives with a nervous yet overly-excitable wave. Introduced as Anita (not that her name’s important) the woman is provided a brief few seconds of fame hungry backstory. She explains that she used to be a Broadway star and is looking forward to performing live once more. The host cruelly mocks her ambitions; he’s clearly far younger and cleverer than she is.

“There must be something darkly sadistic about human nature which makes these shows so unbearably addictive”

Anita is told that if she wants to earn cash, she has to keep singing. It doesn’t matter what happens, just keep on singing. As a Karaoke version of Katie Perry’s “Last Friday Night” begins to play, two obese men strip sensually in front of Anita. The crowd goes wild. Once stripped to their skins the men accost Anita, forcing her screaming head between their dripping wet buttocks… She keeps singing.

Humiliated and soaked, Anita is forced to smell the men’s armpits and wear their gussets over her head. Once the ordeal is over the audience get to vote on Anita’s performance. Having been disappointed with her efforts they conclude that she must leave without pay.

Next we’re introduced to Jason. He doesn’t have much of a back story, he’s just happy to be on TV. Not much of a singer, Jason warbles an unconfident rendition of “My Girl” as his head is placed in a box filled with tarantulas. Continuing to sing he’s forced to grasp at $5 bills with his teeth. The ordeal eventually ends; he’s probably made about 35 dollars in total.

No, it’s not a scene from Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Nor a Jam-esk dystopia from the warped mind of Chris Morris. It is in fact the USA game show “Killer Karaoke”; and the man in the flat was me, last Thursday night.

Available around half ten on Challenge, the basic purpose of Killer Karaoke is fairly straight forward: sing karaoke… while being tortured. Some contestants are set on by dogs, some dipped in icy water, some electrocuted – it varies each week.

As a concept, Killer Karaoke has everything a decent episode of Black Mirror would have. It takes advantage of the poor, demonises the overweight, and encourages the judgement of a mindless generation which (ironically) programs like Killer Karaoke helped to create. Filmed in front of a blood baying live studio audience, the show is topped off with unfunny commentary from the repugnant Steve-O (of Jackass fame).

While witnessing this half-hour of hell, it became nearly impossible to decide who I pitied the most. You had the dim-witted contestants, clearly confusing the concept of fame with that of mass humiliation; the working-class audience cackling at their fellow human beings; even Steve-O seemed worthy of some form of pity. Previously an idol to a generation of disenfranchised self-harmers, Steve-O is now reduced to performing parlour tricks and scripted jokes simply to fill the void between rounds.

But I can’t blame any of these people for the existence of Killer Karaoke. Yes they’ve all played their own individually twisted parts, but the real fault lies with me: the viewer at home.

I am both the victim and the cause of shows like Killer Karaoke. Despite my supposed disdain I’ve still succeeded in watching three whole episodes, and there’s a good chance I’ll go back for a fourth.

There must be something darkly sadistic about human nature which makes these shows so unbearably addictive. Whether it’s eating insects on I’m a Celebrity or crushing dreams on Britain’s Got Talent, we just can’t get enough of humiliation TV. It doesn’t even matter how low-budget these shows become, the sadistic element is more than enough to bring us crawling back.

Well I’ve had enough. I’m switching off my telly and never turning it back on! Well… maybe after XFactor’s over.

Alex Warren
Alex Warren
Miserablist, whiskey-drinker, and general tinpot shambles. Alex Warren has a weary pessimism for all things media, politics and tech.