The Evolution of Reality Show Evil: How Low Can They Go?
by Stacey Allison
First, there was Rich Hatch on Survivor 1. He was the villain of the series and many were quite upset to see him win. Then, there was Jerri on Survivor 2. She was annoying and objectionable, and most were thrilled to see her go. But then there was Justin on Big Brother 2, not to mention the Chill Town alliance. These people just keep getting worse. When will we hit rock bottom?
Since the arrival on the pop culture landscape of Survivor, we have loved to hate reality show bad guys. We gather at the water cooler and gossip about their nefarious deeds, delighting in their machinations. Yet is that still the case, or have we begun to truly just hate them?
In the summer of 2000, North America was shocked (shocked!) by the plotting and scheming of Survivor contestant Richard Hatch and his Tagi alliance. Fast forward to summer of 2001 and the houseguests of Big Brother 2.
As far as bad behavior goes, plotting and scheming barely make the list. How has the reality show villain sunk so low and so fast?
While reality shows like MTV's The Real World have been around for over a decade featuring unlikable characters (Puck, anyone?), it was not until Survivor I that a reality show and its villains really captured the imagination of the nation.
In between SI and BB2, there was of course the first Big Brother. Not unsurprisingly (depending on your point of view), the only potential villains on the original BB were voted out almost immediately by the public. Indeed, if Richard Hatch had to face an audience vote, he likely would never have made it half as far as he did.
With the second installment in the Survivor franchise, we had the bitchy antics of Jerri Manthey to earn our ire (and Manthey indeed was happily lambasted by the public and the media), yet even she seems harmless in retrospect.
The members of the so-called "Chill Town" group of BB2 are hateful, hurtful, and above all, astoundingly unintelligent. One former member also has a tendency towards violence.
Justin also has a record of five arrests for robbery and assault (which CBS claims not to have known about). Of course, he isn't the first reality show contestant with a criminal background and, as it turns out, he isn't the last.
Kelly Wiglesworth was part of the Tagi alliance that brought down the Pagong tribe in Survivor I. Even they had a few skeletons in the closet: Kelly was wanted in North Carolina to face felony charges that involved a spending spree using a stolen credit card in 1995. (She has since reached a plea agreement with the authorities there.) Fellow castaway Richard was arrested after coming back from the island on suspicion of child abuse. (The charges have since been dropped and he has been exonerated.)
Kelly and Richard schemed along with Susan Hawk and Rudy Boesch to become the final four contestants on the show. They succeeded brilliantly.
Yet viewers were outraged at the tactics used by the Tagi alliance. Why, they lied to people's faces! They backstabbed not only the Pagong tribe, but each other as well! Hatch, in particular, as the brains behind the operation (and the eventual winner) was scorned by the public.
Yet, with all the plotting that went on at Pulau Tiga, there was almost no hateful behavior. Naturally players got on each other's nerves and sure, Susan did skewer Kelly with her infamous "Snake and Rat" diatribe on the final episode. Chalk it up to the heat and emotions running high. (Wiglesworth and Hawk claim to have since patched up their differences and, sure enough, the pair have seemed genuinely friendly towards each other at public appearances.)
In fact, none of the cast of the original Survivor seem to hold any grudges (with the exception of lawyer Stacey Stillman, although her grudge is against producer Mark Burnett and his reported fixing of the game). For the most part, the castaways all got along swimmingly and any unpleasantness was a product of the tension of playing the game.
The Tagi alliance did what needed to be done to win. If the Pagong members hadn't been so hopelessly naive, they too would have formed an alliance to try to control the voting process. There was little to no insulting of other contestants aside from Rudy's rampant homophobia (and even he was friends with openly-gay Richard). For the most part, nothing was personal.
Then, last winter, came Survivor 2. Jerri Manthey, a bartender/wannabe actress, was the epitome of the pretty, catty girl whom most people hated in high school. She was devious (accusing fellow contestant Kel of smuggling in beef jerky), combative (butting heads with Keith over just about everything), and worst of all, she was annoying (her luxury item was a bongo -- the prosecution rests).
The public hated Jerri. She orchestrated poor Kel's dismissal. She tried to manipulate good-guy Colby. She had other Ogakor tribe members Amber and Mitchell hanging off her every word. She argued with Keith constantly. She was a pain to live with and she was quite simply, a bitch.
Suddenly Richard Hatch looked like a prince next to Jerri Manthey. Richard had plotted, sure, but he was a good-natured and seemingly good-hearted person. At the time, Jerri had taken the reality show villain to a new, malicious level and was almost unanimously hated by the public. She claims to have been the victim of one-sided editing (which may not be wholly untrue) and has in the months following the show tried to prove that she's not so bad after all.
Indeed, she may be right. It can be said that while Jerri was not the nicest person to spend a month starving in the Outback with, she was fairly harmless. Jerri was pompous and egotistical, but she wasn't truly detestable. Certainly not in light of the actions of recent reality show contestants.
Ah, the "Chilltowners." It seems a criminal record is almost a requirement to be part of this self-proclaimed cool kids' club.
Although Dr. Will Kirby has no official rap sheet, he admitted one night to fellow CT members that he had stolen the pharmaceutical Viagra from the hospital to give out to male friends. Not only a crime, but highly unethical and dangerous.
While Will has never been arrested for his offenses, the same can't be said for Shannon Dragoo or Mike Malin (a.k.a. Carri). Shannon pleaded no contest in 1998 to a charge of careless driving that resulted in the death of a 66-year-old man. Shannon mentioned the accident in the Big Brother house, but spoke only about her own injuries (apparently only telling Will privately about the deceased victim). The victim's widow also claims that Shannon has never offered an apology for killing her husband.
Mike, an alleged co-owner of a Los Angeles bar (no written evidence can support the claim), was convicted in 1996 of trespassing and taking paparrazi photos on the closed Warner Brothers set of Batman & Robin. He also laughingly told his fellow CT members of devious scams such as raising funds purportedly for the Special Olympics, only to spend the money on a vacation.
Most recently, Will devised a plan to elicit sympathy from the other housemates. He proposed to an agreeable Mike and Shannon that he would claim to have leukemia and say that he was only in the house to garner publicity in order to find a suitable donor.
The idea of a medical doctor gleefully concocting such a plan is frightening, especially given the fact that Will has worked with oncology patients in the past. Will has also admitted to a lack of human feelings and seems to identify with the title character in American Psycho far too easily. (Posters on the internet have likened him to Robert Chambers, the so-called "Preppy Killer" from the 1980s.)
If Will's latest scheme shows us anything, it is the depth of his and his cohorts' stupidity. Will, Mike, and Shannon (now evicted) seem unable to grasp the notion that the live feeds streaming on the internet reveal everything that goes on in the house, even the softest whispers.
Before he could even get the leukemia scheme off the ground, other housemates were warned by an airplane banner. Will and the gang were mystified as to how the internet followers could have possibly known what he was planning.
CT members have shown a staggering lack of self-awareness, accompanied by a hearty dose of narcissism. Mike has no inkling that his rapping "skills" are being mocked mercilessly by followers of the show. (At the very least, these houseguests are in a for rude awakening when they leave the sound stage.)
Upon entering the house Will and Shannon embarked on a nauseating romance, convinced they'd be "America's Sweethearts." (They are similar to Jerri Manthey in that they inspire in most a vivid recollection of the so-called "popular" kids in high school. Generally speaking, the memories are not fond.)
Will and Shannon have also waxed poetic about their hatred for immigrants, homosexuals, overweight people and pretty much anyone they don't consider "cool" (read: 99% of the population).
To top off all the nasty actions of the group, Shannon cleaned the toilet bowl with the well-liked Hardy Hill's toothbrush; an act not only stunningly immature, but dangerous as well. Although she claims she wouldn't have allowed Hardy to use the bacteria-laden brush, it’s not unlikely that without the intervention of Big Brother, she would have happily giggled in the corner while exposing Hardy to the risk of Hepatitis and other diseases.
(In an interview with CBS, Shannon's mother said that she was proud of her daughter's actions, and smilingly said that the toothbrush "prank" was something she herself would have done. It is clear that Shannon's pathology is born and bred.)
So, how did these immoral people end up on national television? Did CBS go too far in an effort to spice up the show? Ratings are fairly low again this year, so it would appear the public isn't interested in the houseguests, no matter how outrageous their behavior. Then again, perhaps the low ratings are due to the fact that last year's Big Brother was infamously boring.
Do reality show producers feel they need to keep pushing the envelope to attract viewers? How are contestants passing the psychological evaluations? Are producers intentionally looking for contestants with questionable morals?
If so, why has CBS downplayed the actions of CT, only showing the TV-viewing audience the tip of the iceberg? It seems clear they fear more backlash like that which arose following Justin's unstable behavior and his subsequent eviction.
At a recent CBS press conference, network president Leslie Moonves appeared uncomfortable discussing the controversy and claimed that the show was simply a "summer experiment."
So, what's next for the reality show villain? How much further can the depravity and hatefulness go? We've gone from villains who plot to win the game to villains that are utterly objectionable human beings. Are the sociopaths of Chill Town the pinnacle of reality show evil?