Exploitation as Entertainment: The Worst Television Genre in Broadcast History

By Rachael Brennan


There are some movies in the horror genre that go beyond the traditional scary movie into a separate genre colloquially referred to as torture porn. If you have ever seen Saw, The Human Centipede, or Hostel you will understand what I mean when I say that the plot of the movie seems to have been created to explain the violent and grotesque torture sequences instead of the other way around. There are even a few stories floating around on the internet about how Tom Six, the writer and director of The Human Centipede, wrote the movie because he was obsessed with the idea of sewing people together mouth-to-rectum in a way that makes me a little bit concerned for his neighbor’s safety.

swan headerThis kind of torture-as-amusement only works as a source of entertainment if it is fictional. That doesn’t always stop Hollywood though, and TV directors who don’t understand this concept tend to fail spectacularly once their vision hits the screen. Either the show seems all too real and the thought that people were put in danger for our entertainment repulses the viewing audience (like on Lifetime’s astoundingly terrible reality show Born in the Wild) or the show is clearly not real at all, making the horror aspects of the show seem hokey and lame (like in the show Hellevator.)

The difficulty for producers and other entertainment executives seems to be that although they know this type of thing really doesn’t work as a reality show or documentary there is clearly a huge audience that loves to see people being tortured on screen, otherwise there wouldn’t have been 7 films in the Saw franchise or, even more astounding, 2 sequels to The Human Centipede. So, what is a producer who wants to reach that untapped potential market to do?

Create emotional torture porn, of course!

biggest loser.jpgThese terrifying combinations of Survivor and the Milgram experiment tend to last only a few episodes and suffer from terrible ratings, but for some reason they keep making their way back onto the air. For example, in 2004 Fox brought us The Swan, a reality show where they brought together a bunch of people with low self-esteem and tore them apart on national TV. Literally, in fact, as part of the show was giving them plastic surgery so they wouldn’t be so ugly anymore, proving that Fox has about as much empathy for everyday people as Satan himself. The show lasted 2 full seasons despite dismally low ratings. Unlike The Biggest Loser (which has plenty of problems of its own) The Swan never even pretended to have the contestant’s health or wellbeing in mind, pushing them through strict diets and surgeries so that they could go onto compete in swimsuit and lingerie competitions.

the-briefcase.jpgTen years after The Swan sang its swan song CBS decided to take a shot at their own version of Saw for the psyche with a show called The Briefcase. Figuring that preying on people with mental health issues had been done, they decided to abuse the desperation and emotional pain of people in poverty by offering them a briefcase full of money, only to then tell them about another really poor family that could use the money and trying to cajole them into sharing their newfound riches with this other impoverished family. Nothing is quite as repellant as watching a family come into the money that could help pull their home out of foreclosure, but only at the expense of someone else’s badly needed surgery, except perhaps if the show were narrated by a member of the Walton family. The show only ran for 6 episodes because apparently the American public couldn’t stomach watching the psychological abuse of our most vulnerable citizens.

derren-brown-the-push-netflix.pngThis year Netflix released their own version of this clusterfuck of an idea with a show called The Push. Instead of preying upon the poor or people with low self-esteem, they decided to pull a handful of people out of the public at large and con them into committing terrible crimes. The show opens with the producer convincing a retail clerk to kidnap a baby. Don’t worry, the baby isn’t real, but the emotional torment that person will live with for the rest of their life after being conned into committing a kidnapping certainly is! After the kidnapping warm-up (I can’t emphasize this enough, they manipulated someone into stealing a baby) they enlist the help of famous celebrities to force people into a situation where they could conceivably justify murdering someone. That’s right, Robbie Williams, Stephen Fry, David Tennant, and many other beloved stars pitched in to destroy someone’s mental well-being.

The main character navigates what he thinks is a networking event but turns out to be a set up designed to encourage him to murder someone. Everything from the outfit he is wearing (a casual outfit at a formal event) to the names of the people at the event (one man pretends to have the same last name as the main character to create a false sense of camaraderie) has been put in place to affect his behavior and hopefully force him into a situation where he feels like murder is his only option.

After watching him navigate this morally bankrupt scenario, he *SPOILERS* refuses to push a man to his death. Yay, right? We have just a moment to enjoy the fact that he isn’t a murderous douche before the show punches us right in the gut by revealing that this man wasn’t the only person pushed into this experiment. The audience sees multiple people at the end of the same scenario, but this time we get to see the looks on their faces as they believe they are shoving an old man to his death. The show ends with a warning that this is the kind of thing that can happen if you don’t maintain control of your life and the decisions that you make.

I’d point out to the director and producers that making this show caused them to torture a number of people and they should probably have maintained more control of their own decisions…

…but I’m afraid the irony would be so heavy it would crush them to death like an anvil in a Merrie Melodies cartoon.


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