First, there was Richard. He was evil -- or so many people thought. Then there was Jerri. She was certainly evil, right? But then there was Chill Town, and a more evil bunch we would never find. Or will we? The standard of "evil" on reality TV has been degenerating, and may continue to do so.
Remember Richard Hatch, Survivor's master of manipulation? Richard crafted an alliance from his Tagi tribe that systematically eliminated the opposing members from Pagong, and then he sat back and watched as his own allies turned on each other. Throughout the game, Richard was cool, collected, and focused on winning. He also became the villain of the show, sparking indignation on Internet message boards and prompting critics and journalists to decry his actions as symptomatic of the death of ethics and morality in society. Richard, some said, was evil.
Then came Survivor II's Jerri. Mean, bitchy, and condescending, Jerri quickly earned the disdain of viewers across the country. Her ousting of Kel in the second episode over the now-notorious beef jerky incident marked her as a vicious, deceptive competitor, willing to slander the reputation of an honorable man in order to further her position in the game. Her petty attacks on fellow Ogakor tribe member Keith made her appear shallow, self-centered, and immature. Once again, the Internet lit up with anger, only this time the anger was more intense, and public opinion more unified. Most people agreed: Jerri was evil.
More recently, Big Brother 2 has brought us the Chill Town alliance: Mike, Will, Shannon, and Justin, four of the most reprehensible people ever to appear on a reality TV show. I'll admit, I didn't get to witness any of Justin's antics; he was thrown off the show by CBS for being a danger to the other contestants before I started watching. The remaining three members of Chill Town quickly earned the enmity of the other houseguests and the viewing public alike. Arrogant, narcissistic, and cruel, the three members of Chill Town took bad behavior to a new low. Whereas Richard was scheming, and Jerri was self-centered and petty, Mike, Will, and Shannon came off as deliberately and gleefully cruel. They carried themselves with an air of arrogant superiority, and rarely missed an opportunity to slander the other houseguests behind their back. When faced with eviction, they responded with childish outbursts and temper tantrums, including one memorable incident in which Shannon cleaned the toilet with Hardy's toothbrush as an act of vengeance. Even more so than Jerri, the disgust for the members of Chill Town has been almost universal. This time, there was no doubt: these people were the very embodiment of evil.
Looking back at Survivor, Richard's so-called villainy seems benign in comparison to antics of Chill Town. Richard was a plotter and a schemer, but he was never deliberately cruel, and he never let things get personal. At the time, he was the standard of evil, but with each new reality show, the standards have been redefined. It's actually somewhat amusing now to go back and look at all the diatribes posted against Richard at the height of his infamy. They seem rather na´ve now, in light of the shows that followed Survivor. Richard was called evil because, at the time, the genre was still new, and there was no one to compare him to. Since then, we've seen much worse. Evil, it seems, is a standard that's set only until someone comes along to lower the bar again.
Although the vile depths to which people will sink continues to shock us, no one who watches reality TV should be surprised that the standard keeps dropping. One of the things that made Survivor so popular was the presence of Richard in the role of the arch-villain. Evil creates conflict, conflict creates drama, and drama keeps these shows interesting. As much as we may be disgusted by the Chill Towns of reality TV, they're also the ones we watch most closely. By acting as villains, they make the other contestants on these shows into heroes, and instead of a documentary, we get something more akin to a soap opera. In contrast, when everyone gets along nicely and no one misbehaves, no one watches the show. After Will and Jordan, two of the most controversial and quarrelsome members of the first Big Brother, were voted out early, by all accounts the show became a long snooze-fest. It's no surprise then that producers of these shows seem to go out of the way to pick the most socially maladjusted contestants they can find, people who are pretty much guaranteed to start trouble and create conflict. This is really nothing new; The Real World lost any semblance of reality a long time ago when the producers realized they could get a lot more mileage by deliberately choosing cast members who were the least likely to ever have anything to do with each other in any other situation. This has been pushed further with each season as well, with borderline homophobes and racists now being cast so as to spark tensions with the rest of the cast members.
There's no doubt that villainy keeps us glued to our screens, but how far will it go before it backfires? Already, watching Big Brother 2 is more like watching a car wreck than anything else. The general feeling on the Internet seems to be that, with Kent gone, there's no one to really like in the house, and that the only thing entertaining about the show is watching the remaining houseguests savage each other. You have to wonder if this is what CBS really intended. The only enjoyment that Big Brother now provides is the ghoulish satisfaction that comes from watching unpleasant people squirm as they reap the harvest that they've sown. It certainly isn't uplifting, feel-good kind of entertainment, or even nail-biting suspense, but rather a morbid, voyeuristic kind of titillation. This works, but only just barely. Reality TV may need evil to keep us entertained, but it only works if the evil is actually entertaining. Richard was the perfect villain because he was sneaky, but not cruel, manipulative, but not evil. Even Jerri made for good television, because we got to see her get her comeuppance in the end. Big Brother has degenerated into a house full of whiny, self-deluding, hypocrites and malicious backstabbers. If producers keep casting their shows with contestants like these, what fun will there be in watching these shows any more?
David Eber is a freelance writer and game designer living just outside of Philadelphia, PA.