There's something about reality television that compels me. I get giddy when Sammi and Ronnie get into yet another brawl on The Jersey Shore; I bite tooth and nail as Ryan Seacrest reveals whose singing their swan song on American Idol; I feverishly vote for my favorite dancer on So You Think You Can Dance.
But "The Hunger Games," the young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins, has put a dark spin on one of my favorite past times. (If you haven't read the book I highly recommend it. Warnings: spoilers ahead.)
The sci-fi novels take place in a post-apocalyptic world. North America is now Panem, which consists of an all-powerful ruling city called The Capitol and 12 impoverished districts. As punishment for a prior rebellion against The Capitol, every year one boy and one girl ages 12 through 18 are selected from each district to battle in the Hunger Games.
The live television event has just one rule -- don't die. The 24 "tributes" are thrown into an arena filled with deadly obstacles and only one can come out alive. The "victor" is considered a celebrity in Panem and rewarded with riches for the rest of their lives.
It is Survivor on speed.
As children get torn limb from limb by "muttations," burned alive, or simply die from thirst and starvation, citizens of The Capitol cheer along from home.While in the arena, the tributes become pawns to the Gamemakers, who are responsible for keeping The Capitol entertained. If things get boring, the Gamemakers will find ways to liven it up/
Prior to the Games, the tributes are interviewed by the MC of the event (an over-the-top Seacrest), which gives the contestants the opportunity to create characters for themselves. While on each season of American Idol there's the charming country singer, the peppy teenager and the down-on-his-or-her-luck waitress, in the Hunger Games, there's the brutes, the witty players who can outsmart their stronger foes, and of course, the unsuspecting underdogs.
The tributes are given a makeover a la Clay Aiken, and with the help of their mentor, told how to act and what to say on camera. It is here that our protagonists Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, the tributes from District 12, take on the roles of star-crossed lovers.
It is this romance inside the arena that wins over The Capitol and gains the couple the "votes" of the audience. In Panem's version of a reality competition, audience members are allowed to send gifts in the form of food, needed medical supplies or weaponry, to the arena to assist in keeping their favorite tributes alive. It is these supporters that can make or break the competition. It's not enough for the audience members to simply sit on the sidelines, they need to feel as though they have some control over the outcome (even if in reality they don't).
Any of this sound familiar?
Our reality shows may not have the same life or death risk factor, but they sure are marketed that way.
Like the tributes, contestants on these shows are often unknown, young adults, plucked from their hometown, taken away from their families for weeks at a time. They are reinvented with costumes, makeup, contacts and a new haircut, all to perform for our enjoyment. Week after week, in order to remain in the competition, these contestants are asked to dance or sing "for their life," juggle or eat worms. Of course, there can be only one winner, but the victor has to watch their fellow contestants, who often they have bonded with, get the boot one by one.
We are fascinated with the reality of social interaction. The reality television phenomenon really started in the 90s' with MTV's Real World. We all know the premise -- throw together a group of strangers in an unfamiliar city with different flaws and quirks and stand back and watch the fireworks.
And while it is called reality television, we all know there is some (a Gamemaker if you will) directing The Situation to lift up his shirt or for Ronnie and Sammi to go at each other for another round.
It is these Gamemakers that force Katniss to play up her feelings for Peeta even though she is confused about how she feels about their romance. Are Sammi and Ronnie really dating? Did Ashley really want to chose J.P. in this season of The Bachelorette? To those watching, it doesn't much matter who are what these reality stars' feelings are off camera, as long as they give us a good show.
But "The Hunger Games" revealed what it must be like on the other side of the camera and it doesn't seem pleasant.
"The Hunger Games" has left me for a distaste of reality television, but also proved that in any time period, truth (or the idea of it) is more compelling than fiction.