Paradise costs 

"Candid Camera" was a TV show whose folksy slogan promised to show people "caught in the act of being themselves." This meant entrapping and covertly videotaping them in G-rated situations. Hilarity ensued.

Voyeur TV has prospered despite its peeping-Tom quality and the fact that TV is no place for realism. I don't want to catch people being themselves. I'd rather they be scripted and funny.

Putting people in a glass bowl to see if they'll shred each other like fighting fish is already weird (see talk shows), but for more twisted puppeteering, a new show will add some waves to the water and bang on the glass. Sadistic, megalomaniacal ... a surefire hit.

The $1 million prize isn't what makes CBS's "Survivor," airing next summer, an extreme game show. It's the concept. James Poniewozik of Time magazine explains in a recent issue that 16 volunteers will troop into the rainforest with few provisions but plenty of cameramen. Every three days the group votes to send one member home until two are left. Those who were put in the out-basket will then vote on which of the remaining two wins the pot of gold at the end of this fly-speckled, antagonistic, malaria-charged rainbow. Survivor sounds less like a game than a real "Blair Witch Project" with snakes, heat rash and paranoia. So, who wants popcorn?

Whine and dine

And though people hate real-life confrontation -- they freak when a co-worker gets snippy and squirm seeing saucer-eyed Third-World children who aren't living desperately for a game show -- we probably will watch this overheated stew of tension and deprivation that reduces people to lab rats. We'll watch them suffer while we suck melted butter off our fingers and observe, "Someone needs to kill that Heather chick," while the volunteers draw straws to figure out who to eat first.

Poniewozik notes that the show is based on a Swedish program, and that one snubbee killed himself just after his expulsion from the group, though "it was not certain the show was a factor." Sounds like an oily out, but actually suicidal tendencies seem like a prerequisite to participation. (You can apply at CBS.) Piggy and his pals were fate's little victims in "Lord of the Flies"; the "Survivor" volunteers are motivated by greed and vanity (also referred to as "proving yourself"). Like dogs jockeying for Snausages, they will compete for comforting treats. They'll endure, on purpose, conditions that make "Donner, party of five ... make that four" a good joke in restaurant foyers, while simultaneously enduring social pressure that would have felled any prom queen (doctors, Poniewozik says, will be onhand for fractured bodies and minds). "Mental toughness" is a requirement. You'll note that mental toughness is not the same as "brains," which would keep you at home.

Personality plus

From that brainy armchair, it is kind of fun to wonder how you'd hold up under those conditions. Would you be the peevish Dr. Zachary Smith who the rest of the group gags with a palm frond before the first vote is called? Or would you surprise yourself and end up building an iMac out of shells and bird crap, providing communication to your grateful, stinking, stranded peoples? What would make you crack? Some tainted iguana meat? Or that one guy whose nose always whistle when he breathes? Would a barebones situation break you or make you draw on inner reserves? If a fellow participant got, say, bitten by an angry beaver, would you coolly save the day, whereas normally you throw things if there's no more Equal in the breakroom?

And would being on camera make you more of a jerk or less of one? Would feeling constantly observed make you freak? Or would knowing the world was watching make you act upright, behaving rationally when someone sits on the compass instead of braining them with their own tent pole like you would if it wasn't being recorded?

In the movie "To Die For," Nicole Kidman's character notes that everyone should be on TV all the time because they would act nice if they knew they were being watched. Our "Truman Show," WebCam, hand-held voyeurism is daily moving us closer to her goal. It's hard to decide whether this Gladys Kravitz window-peeping is the perverse result of having no lives of our own or just a healthy interest in our neighbors. Whatever it is, it's high time we got proctologists in on the act. Once we officially see up everyone's butt, maybe we can get back to regular life and TV with scripts.

And if we want to catch people in the act of being themselves, maybe we should just go visit them.

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