Now that the writers strike is drawing to a close, many devoted television viewers are probably happy that the popularity of reality shows may be undermined by scripted television. Not me, though. That’s because shows like “American Gladiators” and “Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Gauntlet” represent two important camps in television: characters we root for and characters we root against.
Take last Monday’s episode of “American Gladiators,” which featured Alex Rai, a diminutive history teacher who had recently lost his mother to cancer. Because of his status as an undersized, grieving man in an underappreciated profession, Alex was easy to root for, especially as a counterpoint to terrifyingly muscular gladiator Hammer.
“Gauntlet” features twenty-somethings from past “Real World” and “Road Rules” seasons competing in games just as childish as those in “Gladiators.” While Gladiators and average Joes shoot Nerf balls at each other, “Gauntlet” contestants participate in football-retrieval contestants that usually escalate into all-out brawls. But what’s fascinating about “Gauntlet” is that, unlike “Gladiators,” the show wants the viewer to dislike the contestants.
Like Rai, “Gauntlet” contestant C.T. Tamburello (“Real World: Paris”) has a developed back story that gives his character depth, as well as a context for the viewer to relate to. The difference is that everything we learn about C.T.’s character paints him as an obnoxious jerk. The first night the contestants move into their lavish Mexican beach house, C.T. gets hammered, starts an argument with his own teammate and shirks his girlfriend in a way that would make Jason Wahler proud.
“Gauntlet” ‘s characters – at this point, I stop calling them “contestants” – are unlikable in a variety of different ways. Yet, waiting to see which “Gauntlet” member gets kicked out of the mansion and left with only an MP3 player is somehow as compelling as rooting for sad sacks like Alex Rai. Why is this?
It’s because the point of “Gauntlet” isn’t who wins – it’s who fails. The show is worth watching to see cocky Coral covered in mud, or selfish Brooke fall to pieces after she’s kicked off. “American Idol,” and many other reality shows, operate on this same principle: the earlier shows are more fun to watch than the later ones, because they’re terrific venues to see the untalented and unlikable get what they have coming. In later episodes of “Gauntlet” and similar shows, when it becomes painfully clear that one of these assholes has to win, the show has lost the comic effect that comes with taking the most spoiled and delusional members of society down a peg.
Much of today’s scripted television also relies on this basic dichotomy of rooting for the underdog and against cocky and obnoxious characters. But for most shows, using the terms “like” and “dislike” is an oversimplification. I might like Homer Simpson – in fact, I love him – but I didn’t root for him when he invented his own religion any more than I rooted for G.O.B. Bluth to become a successful magician. Characters like these are mainly entertaining because – unlike the “Gauntlet” members – it is assumed they will fail in their selfish endeavors. Similarly, you know Jack Bauer will always find his terrorist, because his show operates according to a formula as old as Horatio Alger.
Reality shows, though, never follow typical story lines. Watching scripted shows, you have a vested interest but, whether you admit it or not, you typically know what will happen. On “Gladiators” and “Gauntlet,” though, all you can do is hope that Alex Rai will win the $100,000 and that, maybe, just maybe, C.T. will get the comeuppance he deserves.