Rejection reflection: Who wants to watch a loser?


I'd be without entertainment if I lived in Ancient Rome. Watching gladiators duel to the death or lions devour Christians is too gruesome. But now my television is offering similar fare.

I can tell I don't like Fear Factor without even watching it. The promos alone are too much. I don't know what the prize is, but how desperate do you have to be to eat the stuff they serve? Is this FDA approved?

Then there's that Swan show, where ugly women with low self-esteem endure surgical makeovers– and still get rejected! Apparently only one gets to be the big Swan. Imagine enduring all that pain and then still being declared not good enough to be a pretty woman.

Rejection is a huge theme on most reality shows. I don't mind the American Idol judges rejecting the hordes of contestants who are so out of touch with their own reality that they actually think they can sing. To be fair, many know they can't, but they want to be on television anyway.

But some seem truly surprised. It's some cruel joke of the screener– because there's a pre-audition to audition. They take the best candidates and the worst. Without the worst, much of the entertainment value of the opening episodes would be lost. After all, how enthralling is an hour of mediocre to adequate singing?

But when it comes down to the finals– when the last show each week is devoted to nothing but a long, drawn-out, excruciating rejection of one or two (complete with evil April Fool tricks where their hopes are briefly smashed or raised, only to get the switcheroo)– I can't watch that. I check the Internet in the morning and find out who was voted off. I don't need to see their quivering faces at the moment of impact.

And don't even get me started on the fact that they make the losers sing the song they mangled the night before as their farewell performance, seconds after their hopes and dreams are crushed.

I read an article recently in the New Yorker about America's Next Top Model. This show is so cruel you'd think Scott Peterson was the host. They pose with tarantulas on their face, or standing on rocks in stiletto heels, or walk a runaway in outfits and shoes two sizes too small. They endure insults about their weight, hair, face– and then they're subjected to the typical long, drawn-out elimination critique.

Survivor is where you get tortured by adverse living conditions, tortured by additional required stunts, tortured by having to live in close quarters with people you didn't choose to be marooned with and who are all out to get you, and then subjected to their rejection and banishment. It's like high school, but on a desert island. I have never been able to watch this.

Or Bachelor, Bachelorette, or any of the paring-off mutations on that theme. How distasteful is it to vie for someone's affection as part of a pack of backstabbing men or women where looks and sluttish behavior are more likely to keep you in the game than honesty, integrity, or the ability to balance a household budget? This show is just gross.

The promoters of the Miss America Pageant– kicked off the major networks for low ratings– are now looking for a cable deal where the pageant will actually follow the contestants through the ordeal of national rejection. We will get to know the girls better, their hopes, their dreams– just so we can feel their ultimate defeat more acutely.

The Apprentice fires someone every week, and although I find the competition part interesting, when it comes to booting someone to the curb– literally– they drag their suitcase out the door where a taxi waits to take him or her to Loserville. This I can watch. The difference is that the rejection is not based on looks or woeful warbling, but on work ethic. Deep inside, probably all of us would like to fire half our own co-workers.

You can't say this trend is unique to this century. As a child I watched what has to be the most vicious rejection show of all time, Queen for a Day.

The format of this show, which aired from the mid-'50s to the early '60s, was simple. Four women whose lives had taken a deeply troubling turn would tell the emcee their sad stories, usually having something to do with too little money, too many children, crippling illnesses, dead spouses, dead children, fires, plagues, and locusts.

Their problems would be applauded– the ancient equivalent of text messaging a vote. Then the pathetic candidate whose misery received the loudest applause would be crowned queen, complete with a cape and bouquet of roses. She'd win prizes ranging from cars to stoves. I'm not sure whether any of the prizes actually addressed her problems.

The other three beleaguered ladies– well, too bad. No soup for you. They were swept off stage like yesterday's garbage.

Some may argue this is only the age-old story of success, because eventually someone does succeed on these shows and we cry and applaud. For every winner in any race, there are many losers. I've lived the story of my own failures many times, and sat through many no-championship seasons as my little brother and later my own son struggled in sporting events.

I suppose it's the nature of life, winning sometimes, losing a lot of times. In current society, where children win awards and trophies just for showing up, I guess we need to be reminded by television that real life is normally not as benign.