Reality Shows Feb 2, 2018
A response to Forced Entertainment's Real Magic (Jan 18-20) & Tomorrow’s Parties (Jan 21)
By Ryan Diaz
Of the most formative memories I have involving game shows, one moment forever seared in my mind is from The Filipino Channel when I was a kid. While the particular rules of the game are lost to me, I remember the contestant was a young boy not much older than me at the time. The host asked him to talk a little bit about himself. His story was not uncommon to most Filipinos, one of poverty where children have to work to help support their family, their scraps barely enough to make it through the day with a scant amount of food in their bellies. In his freshly pressed polo shirt the host ad libbed along, not exactly sympathetic, rather more matter-of-fact. His jokes helped lighten the mood while the sound team pumped melodramatic piano over the loudspeakers. The cheap soundtrack pushed the boy into sobbing grief, moaning in pain about his family’s suffering and his dream to win them money on the game show. More sound effects, more banter as the audience cycled between pity and laughter, and by the end of his story the boy was hugging the host who chuckled as if to say, “oh, kids!”
And then came the segment where contestants show off their special talent before the game begins. The boy excitedly announced his love for dancing as he jumped into the middle of the stage, limbs flailing in the latest dance craze to the audience’s squealing delight, his face still streaked with tears and snot. The emotional whiplash took place over the course of mere minutes, ten at most.
What unites the little boy on the Filipino Channel game show with other examples of the genre, even its extremities from the camaraderie of The Great British Bake Off to the sublime desperation of contestants on the cult hit Killer Karaoke, is how naked their participants are in openly chasing their desires. In a state of suspended disbelief, under rules that tell both the contestant and the audience that success is borne out of our own skill or tenacity, and serialized to the extent that we’ve seen at least once before that dreams really can come true, who wouldn’t give in to their hope? Their own chance of a lifetime in a sea of chances.
But it’s not enough to show contestants fighting for what they want, the audience needs to know if they deserve it. Cue little boy from the shanties of the Philippines with his poverty and his dance moves provoking sympathy and charismatic favor. Fictional narratives deploy the game show audience’s interest in contestants’ biographies, and use the format to structure the arc of the protagonists’ motivations and desires, such as in Slumdog Millionaire or the more abstract infomercial format from Requiem of a Dream.
What happens when the audience is put through the same emotional excavation?
Real Magic by Forced Entertainment takes the tropes of the game show format and deconstructs it to a single isolated round, repeated ad nauseum until the show runs out of their allotted run time. Similar to the format from the 70s game show, Pyramid, a host guides a pair of contestants to land on mental synchronicity, except in this case, the task is comedically impossible. One contestant thinks of a word (written for the audience’s convenience on cardboard signs) while the other—usually blindfolded, sometimes not—has to guess that word. “It can be any word in the English language,” the host announces, setting everyone up for failure. The trick is, this entire round, its setup and the three guesses allowed the guesser are static. The three performers swap roles at the end each round, must repeat the same guesses, and must perform the basic beats of the “script.” Intonation, reactions, compressions and expansions of the text might vary, but the skeleton remains constant. The answer is never “electricity,” “hole,” or “money.” They never get it right. They always lose. They swap. Sometimes they dance a simple, devastating shimmy between rounds to delay the inevitable disappointment of one more failure that sets up the next.
Watching Real Magic was a test of endurance, attention to detail, and goodwill. Throughout, I went from edge-of-my-seat exhilaration when the performers took the script in a new direction, apathy when the round felt oppressively rote, to frustration when my anticipation gave in to the foolish hope that the round might end in success. Even the performers conveyed similar emotions, some rounds desperate to end the game, to go off-script, allowing the guesser to read the cardboard sign, sometimes saying it out loud to them. Sometimes the onus was on the person with the word, the host urging them to simply say that the incorrect guess was indeed the right answer just to get it over with.
When the game isn’t truly a game, when the result is always the same, when the entire dramatic arc is known from start to finish and repeated and repeated and repeated, what’s left is the heavy atmosphere of human reactions and emotions that swirled around the theatre as audience members and performers alike groaned in frustration, blurted answers, and interrupted each other. A not unnoticeable number of audience members even left the theatre mid-performance. Less a game, more an experiment, Real Magic asks the audience the same question all other game shows ask their contestants: What do you want? What more could you possibly you ask for?
My wants as an audience member changed constantly: I wanted it to end, I wanted it to keep going, to surprise me, to end already, to scream out the answer, to laugh, to fall asleep, to pay attention.
It’s the wanting that makes the work. For almost 90 minutes, I wanted emphatically, and always something different or something familiar but tinged with the effect of so many minutes of watching the same thing over and over again.
Tomorrow's Parties by Forced Entertainment (Jan 21) (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
In Tomorrow’s Parties, Forced Entertainment sends forth two performers who stand on a platform made of wood shipping pallets—the proverbial soapbox—and for 75 minutes they take turns brainstorming potential futures for humanity in a combination TED talk/stand up comedy/poetry reading. Here the wants were simple yet just as diffused amongst audience and performers. Forecasts run from the absurd or even discomforting to all-too-real. A future where we’re all squished together due to overpopulation, one where a global pandemic wipes everyone out and people live in fear of their loved ones dying before them, one where there is no racism because humanity has banded together under a common extraterrestrial foe from the far reaches of the galaxy. Perhaps there’s a future where humans are doing unspeaking things to animals.
Their predictions contradict each other’s, even sometimes their own, but what makes their back and forth collegial and even meditative to listen to is the simple addition of “or” to every speakers turn. Their predictions work as boolean operators, not necessarily canceling the other out, sometimes working together in terrifying tandem. Who’s to say?
The performers, one man and one woman, tease at some defined relationship, sometimes their predictions playing off the other in pointed, witty back and forth. A future with no men, she says. Or a future with many women and a few men who get treated like royalty, he says. Or, she responds, a future where men instead come from another planet, and are far superior to earth’s men in every single way.
Here the wants I circled were more open because they were implied with every prediction. Is a future they’re presenting something I want for the world? Do I want that future now instead of later? Do I want to avoid that future, prevent a future where there’s still sickness, rape, heartache, loss, and little boys dancing for a studio audience just to get money so his family’s lives could be a fraction better than it was yesterday? Do I want something else, something missing from what they’ve offered?
Many predictions would be repetitions of the past, some were corollaries to present day. Some worked just as well as descriptions for the world as it is today. Imagine, for example a future where some humans can no longer find resources or stability on the ravaged earth, who board spaceships to distant planets, and live their lives in a state of constant longing as they dream of the world they abandoned, the friends and family they left behind, all while existing on a planet so subtly off from their own biology that their presence is constant reminder that they were meant for somewhere else. Is that not experience of an immigrant? My heart broke thinking of my mother, my family, and myself when they gave words to the kind of longing where every thought, ever conversation is about a lost past, a home that never feels like home after you’ve left. That future is my present.
That’s the problem with predictions. Who’s to say people don’t already live in dystopia. Don’t already live in a balkanized state of constant war? Don’t already have to take a pill just to survive the day? If those futures or present conditions are not the life I would want for myself, how can I accept it for others? Don’t we all want more than what we’ve been dealt?
There is a decidedly political angle to all this wanting that Forced Entertainment asks us to investigate. In watching both works, I realized where else I’ve experienced the range of feeling that includes frustration, disbelief, fear, and hope, all in such quick succession. The volatile cocktail of mixed emotions ultimately gives off the impression of dread, especially while going through the motions of another day of feeling trapped under an oppressive system where everyone loses. It’s the kind of dread and anxiety that comes from yearning for decent futures where present injustices could be addressed and ameliorated, futures where I have regained control of what’s possible.
Every day since the 2016 election, I wake up to another horror, another magnification of bigotry and malice, another low blow to decency and humanity. Another foreign country that gets dragged in the mud, its citizens regarded as a mass of subhumans. Another person gets deported to a country they’ve never known, another person goes without water or electricity while so much is still left to go around. Another shooting that claims countless citizens and innocents, another future snuffed by climate change or corporate greed.
Want borne of repetition, repetition giving new urgency to want—indeed, Forced Entertainment themselves describe the watershed moments of the 2016 American election and the Brexit vote as key influences in their work and as context for their art making.
So is the future a game show with clear conditions for losing or winning? Or does the hope of winning in the end keep me coming back? Or are we free to speculate endless, ambiguous conditions, where we might have more agency but hardly a path to get to where we want to be? Or can we walk out on the entire mess, choose to spend our time on this earth as we please. Or do we stay and suffer through the lows to experience the nosebleed heights? Or this way? Or that? Or what else?
Ryan Diaz is a Filipino designer, writer, activist, and Celine Dion superfan. Boogies with Au Collective, teaches social justice-centered self-defense.
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