Nothing sacred

"I Want a Divorce!" is not the cry of a wounded spouse, or the title of a Hillary Clinton tell-all. Rather, in the tradition of "Survivor" and "Big Brother," and as the antithesis of the scandalous "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" it is the title of an upcoming Fox television program in which divorcing couples compete in a game-show format to retain their possessions. But wait, there’s more.

• "Surprise Wedding" aired on November 2 as a special in which five women, frustrated by their boyfriends’ ambivalence toward marriage, invited the men to Las Vegas under the pretense of having won a makeover contest. The women then went off to be made beautiful and the men received tickets to a Vegas show. The show turned out to be them, and in front of a studio audience of fifteen hundred, their relationship’s history was made public and they had a chance to propose. On stage.

• "Love Cruise" will put a group of singles on a ship to play "musical dates." The "losers" will be voted off the ship (where will they go?) until, as Mike Darnell, Fox’s executive vice president for alternative programming, put it, "the couple most in love wins."

• Fox’s "Temptation Island," will strand couples on an island populated by male and female models waiting to test their relationship’s fidelity quotient. Whoever succumbs loses.

• Not to be outdone, the UPN network has created "Temptation Manor," upping the ante to partner-swapping as the test of faithfulness. At the end, each contestant must choose between the person she or he came with and any of the other contestants.

What does all this mean? "I think there will be a great deal of voyeuristic fun because divorce is such a national phenomenon and people maybe don’t take marriage as seriously as they used to," says Peter Isacksen, executive producer of "I Want a Divorce." Indeed. Proving his point, the producers of MTV’s "Road Rules," which puts a group of strangers together in a motor home and gives them weekly tasks to complete while driving across the country, recently "challenged" its participants to pair up and get married in Las Vegas-only to divorce within twenty-four hours. But, we are assured, there is no need to worry about any public humiliation in this type of program, because, as Isacksen says, "the tone of the show is not going to be anything that anyone is embarrassed about."

With more shows like these on the horizon, one is left wondering what areas of our private lives are left to be explored as fodder for telecasts. As the guilty pleasure of "reality TV" gains ground-Germans call this type of delight schadenfreude, or finding pleasure in the misfortunes of others-our private spaces are increasingly colonized by television production companies. Shows like "Blind Date," which follows a couple around on their first date, and "House Calls," which allows us to peek in on a session between a psychologist and a couple, come with a price. They erode our understanding not only of the private, but also of human dignity. When our most private events are laid bare in the public square, the value of the human qua the human, and not merely as market share, begins to blur.

What’s next, a camera-rigged "Catholic Confessional"? It remains something of a surprise that more of the sacraments haven’t been tapped for the tube. Don’t tell Mother Angelica.

Published in the 2000-12-01 issue: 
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