The end of spring marks the close of the regular primetime broadcast season with the finales of everyone’s favorite shows — “Friends,” “Survivor” and especially “Dawson’s Creek.” Luckily for casual television viewers and enthusiasts alike, the summer offers a horde of new shows to distract from obsessions about what really happened between Joey and Dawson in the last moments of “Dawson’s Creek.”
Two summers ago, the face of primetime television was forever changed when ABC’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” hit the airwaves. Last summer, CBS followed the trend with the oh-so-captivating “Survivor” and its polar opposite, the terribly boring “Big Brother.” The two shows combined big cash prizes, as in “Millionaire,” with the tried and true focus on human interactions by constantly filming the cast, as in MTV’s “The Real World.”
Now, NBC is trying to get a piece of the summer reality television pie – which has so far eluded them – with the premiers of “Weakest Link, ” “Spy TV” and its most heavily advertised program, “Fear Factor.”
“Fear Factor,” which premiered on June 11, and is now in its second week, is the latest reality television show to be aired this summer on NBC. “Fear Factor” is organized around three stunts that are meant to challenge the fears of the six contestants. The three men and three women then compete for the final prize of $50,000.
Host Joe Rogan (“News Radio”) begins each episode by warning the audience that the stunts are conducted by trained professionals and in no way should be reenacted — something that other reality programs have gotten themselves into trouble over in the past (see MTV’s “Jackass” debacle).
The contestants themselves come from all walks of life, ranging from a professional shoe-shiner to an aerospace engineer in the first episode, but are all predictably young and attractive. If a contestant fails to complete a challenge, he or she is forced to leave the show, narrowing down the playing field to a final, climactic challenge.
In last week’s premiere, the contestants were first dragged one hundred yards by a team of horses, suffering bumps and bruises along the way to complete the first challenge. The second challenge was more mental — a gross out stunt requiring the contestants to lie in a pit full of 400 rats for four minutes. The final stunt required the remaining contestants to sit in a taxicab suspended high in the air. They were then prompted to climb out of the car and crawl to the other end, collecting flags along the way before they finally had to get back into the window and sit at the wheel of the car.
The second episode continued the trend set in the first by first having the contestants leap from the tops of moving semis, lie in the same glass case with thousands of worms and finally they were flung in a slingshot while shooting paint balls at other contestants. Again, the winner collected $50,000, a paltry sum compared to the $1 million booty in “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” or “Survivor.”
So far, “Fear Factor” has failed to live up to its name. While the stunts are occasionally somewhat scary, the contestants are really never at any risk because of the safety equipment and precautions that the show takes to avoid injury or death. Many of the physical challenges look either fun or, in the case of the suspended taxicab, absurdly physically tasking — but none are necessarily scary.
The best challenges have been the gross-out stunts, making the contestants do disgusting things like bathe with rats and worms. However, this is already starting to get old with two almost identical challenges, prompting the question: How many more little, disgusting creatures can NBC come up with for the contestants to bathe in?
In general, all the stunts on “Fear Factor” have a played-out feeling. Those of the MTV generation have grown up watching young people go through similar physical challenges on “Road Rules.” Worms, bugs and rats have already been intimately dealt with on “Survivor,” and nothing can beat watching Kimi stick out her black tongue after swallowing a giant worm on “Survivor II” last season.
If NBC wants to make “Fear Factor” stand out from the rapidly growing reality television field, they must up the ante and make the contestants face the possibility of the ultimate fear, death. It is the shows that push this envelope that really attract attention — witness MTV’s “Jackass,” where real-life maniacs risk physical harm by conducting their own crazy stunts. “Fear Factor” fails to push that envelope and, hence, falls short of both keeping viewers attention and meeting the expectations NBC built.