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Pure Onsense

Reality Television

Scott Zuke

(8/2015) They weigh as much as a car. Laid down in a line, theyíd stretch the length of a basketball court. There are twice as many of them as there are Harry Potter movies. Yes, there are a lot of Republican candidates running for president in the 2016 race. This month weíll get to see (as many of) them (as can fit on a stage all at once) finally face each other in person as a long primary debate season gets underway.

In our time itís hard to see a group of contestants set to compete for attention and popularity to avoid being voted out and not think of a reality television program. Can it be coincidence that there are sixteen Republicans, the ideal starting number of contestants in many reality shows?

In the past I would have been loath to draw this comparison. Do we really want our proud democratic tradition to mirror the basest of our entertainment? To become like our other guilty pleasures that make us cringe but keep coming back for more? (Fun fact: the first season of Survivor concluded 15 years ago this month, having run through the whole summer of the campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush.)

Like it or not, though, I expect there to be enough similarities between how this primary season unfolds and the arc of a generic reality tv contest that itís worth unpacking a bit further. Iíll start with my personal guilty pleasure, Hellís Kitchen.

This show has been around a long time (it premiered the same year that Barack Obama won a Senate seat in Illinois), but for those unfamiliar with it, it is a simple format. A group of chefs compete in individual and team contests to prove they have the talent, skills, and leadership qualities to earn the final prize: a job as head chef at a restaurant owned by the showís demanding and rageaholic host, Gordon Ramsay.

If you watch enough seasons of the show, which has had a consistent formula over the years, you will come to see that there are two ways for a contestant to survive elimination week to week. First, of course, is to perform well and deliver a professional dinner service. But thatís not easy to do since the whole system is designed to put the contestants under stress and try to trip them up.

The second approach is to be as obnoxious and inflammatory as possible. These contestants actively try to provoke their teammates, sabotage their work, express the poorest sportsmanship they can muster, and have bleep-laden outbursts that draw concerned and bemused looks from the patrons sitting a few feet away in the dining area. They are the ones viewers love to hate. And you just canít believe how they somehow survive elimination time and time again.

But thatís how the show works. The most talented contestant usually wins, but the entertainment value comes from the memorable nut jobs who fell before themóand who claimed the majority of the screen time. The rule I learned for watching Hellís Kitchen is that if you want to make a fairly good guess as to who will make it to the end, pay attention to the contestants who get almost no time on camera through the first several episodes. You almost forget theyíre even on the show, but invariably they emerge later as the strongest talents, after the brash, unbearably annoying ones burn out. (Fun fact: Hellís Kitchen has been renewed through a sixteenth season, the same number as there are Republican presidential candidates.)

The transition Iím about to make should be obvious by now, and if youíve been following along it should come as no surprise that the current Republican front-runner is the one who is most intimately familiar with reality television. Donald Trump was born to take the second path and be the screen-stealing nut job, and this is the only way to make sense of his improbable run. He will not be the nominee, nor will he ever be offered the vice presidency or other cabinet position, but by being the most entertaining candidate he can suck the oxygen out of the room and extort some other prize from the party.

Perhaps that prize is simply attention to feed his famed narcissism, but more likely he has his eye on something else. The Economist, running with this theory, suggested that he might be maneuvering to force the Republican party to cut a deal that would financially benefit his real-estate business. (Fun fact: Donald Trump could buy the Freedom Tower.)

But letís not only focus on Trump. Whatís interesting is to watch how the other candidates are attempting to cope with his impact on the race. Which ones have the competence to take the first path and emerge later as serious front-runners, and which ones will go the second path and attempt to seize the short term spotlight through stunts?

Lindsey Graham, attempting to capitalize on one of Trumpís stunts, posted a video of him destroying his own cell phoneówith a blender, a meat cleaver, a golf club, a bat, lighter fluid, and by dropping it off a building (how many innocent phones had to die for this skit?). Rand Paul posted a video of himself taking a chainsaw to the U.S. tax code. For the candidates less inclined to spectacles, you can count on hearing "outrageous" statements. If you know who Ted Cruz is, itís only because heís a master of that art.

The candidates who stand out from the crowd at this point in the cycle know that the worst thing to be is quietly mediocre. Producers and audiences donít tolerate boredom. But they also have to tread carefully, because entertainment value through the second path is almost never converted to final victory. Most likely the eventual winner is currently working confidently in the background, waiting to emerge when the herd has been thinned. In the meantime, enjoy the show.

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