In the very first episode of the terror-inducing dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, a disembodied voice informs the prime minister of the United Kingdom that he will kill the country’s beloved Princess Susannah if the Prime Minister doesn’t have “full unsimulated sexual intercourse with a pig” on live television. Nine years later, in the third season of the terror-inducing reality competition show The Masked Singer, an NBC casting director created an equally hellish scenario wherein a fuzzy bear wearing a dress made of its own technicolored fur removed its oversized head to reveal that the fuzzy bear was, indeed, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who moments before sang Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” to a cheering judges panel made up of Robin Thicke, Nicole Scherzinger, Jenny McCarthy, and Ken Jeong. Two years, four more seasons of The Masked Singer, and one global pandemic later, a disheveled Rudy Giuliani—former mayor of New York City, former legal adviser to a United States president, and booker of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot —emerged from a giant jack-in-the-box singing “Bad to the Bone” to a slightly less enthused judging panel of (you guessed it) Robin Thicke, Nicole Scherzinger, Jenny McCarthy, and Ken Jeong.
Halfway into this already outrageous year, I ask you this: Spiritually speaking, is watching Rudy Giuliani huff and puff his way out of a costume that somehow looks like if the Jigsaw puppet from Saw went on a tropical vacation really all that different than the live airing of a politician having intercourse with a pig in order to (theoretically) save a princess? Both are the stuff of nightmares, and both give the feeling that we may have just reached a tipping point toward an apocalyptic future. The only difference is one of these scenes occurred in a fictional futuristic TV show ... and one happened on network television in April.
The dystopian nature of The Masked Singer has been well documented since it premiered in 2019. After all, this is a show that dresses up D-list celebrities as cyberpunk poodles and animatronic Russian nesting dolls, has them sing their little songs (even when they’re not necessarily singers), and then forces a panel of judges to guess that it must be Tom Hanks or Barack Obama (both real guesses, both made by Jenny McCarthy, The Masked Singer’s resident optimist) inside the broccoli costume. The Masked Singer has also been on air for seven seasons; you may not personally know anyone watching it, but it’s one of the most highly watched series on television.
I’ve been watching a number of reality shows like this recently: reality shows that are sneakily popular and also give me an eerie feeling that I’m a character at the beginning of a movie about the apocalypse, peacefully watching my colorful and ridiculous little stories, not noticing the zombie hand creeping around the corner. Fictional series about dystopian futures are plentiful: The Walking Dead, Station Eleven, Severance, and The Handmaid’s Tale are just a recent handful. But what I’m calling “apocalypse TV” is the TV that people actually watch as the apocalypse approaches. For example: Look me in the eyes and tell me that Floor Is Lava (debuting its second season on Netflix on Friday) isn’t one of the shows Daniel Kaluuya is forced to watch on his stationary bike in the “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of Black Mirror.
Of course, we would know for certain we’re now living in a dystopian future if the lava was real and actual death was on the table (now use that table to jump to the ottoman, swing from the chandelier, and monkey-bar across the canoe onto the platform, or die). So, we’re not there yet. But I ask you: How far from that future do we really seem? Right now, in June 2022, would it not be a far stretch to imagine that the end times are being heralded?
Reality TV was created to reflect society back to us through a lens we might not otherwise have access to: 20-somethings picked to live in a house, or 30-somethings picked to sell a house; pretty young things staffing a super yacht, or marketing managers trying to get engaged on a game show; housewives who are neither wives nor managing their households; a group of average people put into a survival scenario, slowly weeding one another out by the physical, mental, and social means at their disposal. At its deepest, reality TV creates a microcosm of society from which we can learn and grow by watching how specific circumstances change other humans’ behavior. And at its most shallow, it offers the opportunity to laugh when the people go boom-boom on their butt-butts because they tried to jump onto a desk covered in lava inside a fake planetarium. Highly successful current reality shows like The Circle and The Floor Is Lava fall into each of those respective categories, while also creating a new category all their own: shows that people in a fictional dystopian TV show would watch. But … we’re the people watching them. So, somewhere between the colors and the flashing lights, and the former politicians dressed as sassy hippos, I can’t help but wonder: Is something bad coming?
As we race toward living out all the parallel timelines of Black Mirror, I’ve sorted these apocalypse TV shows out into a few categories in order to better estimate exactly when I should start building my bunker and preparing to enter a Circle chat to the death:
Netflix Social Experiments
If the apocalypse is televised, there is no doubt in my mind that it will be hosted by Vanessa Lachey—and obviously, Nick Lachey. Because no network or streaming platform has done more to create a dystopian television atmosphere than Netflix and their little romantic “experiments.” And don’t get me wrong, I love it. I will be watching people try to fall in love on reality TV as the acid rain falls through my roof and robs me of my last breath. Someone had to come for The Bachelor’s uber-heteronormative, fake fairy-tale juggernaut, and on shows like Love Is Blind and The Ultimatum, Netflix is pretty much like, “Hey, marriage is kind of a wild social concept anyway, so what if we made it even wilder by not letting you see each other or making you move in with some other hottie when you’re on the precipice of getting engaged—and what if, in between all of that, Nick and Vanessa Lachey are crying and telling you that marriage is a prison, but it’s TOTALLY WORTH IT?”
On Love Is Blind, Netflix creates a dating environment wherein young single people get to know one another without ever seeing the people who they’re allegedly falling in love with. Once a pair of the young single people fall in love enough to get engaged, they’re allowed to meet, move into an apartment sponsored by Netflix, and forced to decide in a matter of weeks if they can take their engagement down the aisle. Now let’s take this experiment just one, tiny step further ...
What if they weren’t allowed to break up? What if their couplings were mandated by a totalitarian government, and Netflix had spent years creating an infrastructure for just such an arrangement that we watch as entertainment? NOT THAT HARD TO IMAGINE, IS IT?! I can only hope that Netflix is employing a few sociologists and psychologists to assist its reality TV producers as they proceed with toying around with one of the most fundamental social constructs of our fragile civilization.
Unnecessary Uncanny Valley
Is there a reason to mask the singers of The Masked Singer in such outlandishly over the top, oftentimes creepy full-body costumes, sometimes rendering their wearers completely immobile? Is there a reason for the rhinoceros to be styled as a fighter pilot, or the leopard to be gilded like Victorian royalty, or the Hanson brothers to be trapped inside a set of Matryoshka dolls?
I originally assumed the reason could only be to unnerve and disarm the audience. But I’ve come to realize that perhaps it’s all in an effort to please an audience of people so numbed to usual displays of musical talent and showmanship that they now require more colors, more sparkles, and more decadence in order to remain engaged. Y’know … as if we’re the people of the Capitol in The Hunger Games, taking our little throw-up pills so we can eat more food and drink more booze. Or wait—maybe the masked singers are the Capitol dwellers, and we’re the other districts watching, starved for color and sparkle in our own lives...
It’s hard to say for sure—except that Nicole Scherzinger is definitely our very own Effie Trinket—but it takes only one glance at the screen to know that something is up.
The only hope that this uncanny valley approach to reality TV won’t catch on is that Netflix already made Sexy Beasts—the most nightmarish, surreal dystopian series ever created in which young single people don extremely realistic prosthetics so that it looks like a panda-centaur is telling a buck-toothed beaver how many kids she wants to have before she’s 30—and it didn’t catch on at all. Like, at all. There was a dating show that combined the intriguing kink of furries, the audaciousness of cosplay, and the surreal thrill of watching a devil court an alien, and no one watched it. It feels like we’re mere weeks away from seeing a trailer for a round of Dancing With the Stars where all the celebrities are deep fakes and holograms. But I guess there’s always the chance that we, the people of Panem, just won’t take a liking to the apocalypse TV we’re presented with, thereby delaying the apocalypse for at least one more season of television (or one more day of streaming).
Stone-cold Competition to the Death
Silly, low-stakes game show competitions are not an invention of the modern television era. But some of these current shows do carry the new feeling that they could turn apocalyptic by introducing one single element: sudden death. One simple tweak to The Floor Is Lava, and we’re officially watching Squid Game starring a trio of plumber cousins from Indiana.
The Floor Is Lava is a competition show based on the children’s game where you jump from couches to chairs to tables, attempting to get from point A to point B without touching the floor. On the TV show, the ever-maniacal Netflix reality producers have created replicas of kitchens, bedrooms, and libraries full of spinning furniture and exploding lava geysers that make it more difficult for the competing duos and trios of adults to make it to the finish line. To date, the lava Netflix uses isn’t akin to boiling hot magma in any way, but let’s be clear: The Floor Is Lava editors are absolutely trying to suggest that the contestants who fall into the lava have, indeed, met their fiery ends.
Which tells me that we are one little moral twitch away from that fake lava becoming deadly, or at the very least a little painful. And after that, what’s next? Not only are the not-cakes on Is It Cake? not cakes, but poisoned not-cakes??? The end is truly nigh.
Trapped in a Digital World
You know how I know Netflix’s The Circle is at least one horseman of the TV apocalypse? Because it is almost impossible to explain without calling upon Black Mirror episodes, particularly “Nosedive,” in which constant social rankings were used as currency to move throughout the world. On The Circle, the contestants communicate exclusively through text chats and social media profiles, after which they rank their fellow contestants at various points throughout the game. The highest ranked players become “influencers” who get the power to block other people in the game.
And guess what? The Circle is a great show! I just finished recapping Season 4 with my colleague Jomi Adeniran, and heaven help us, we loved it. It’s weird and alarming to think that these people communicate only through text for weeks on end and the entire goal is to rank your invisible friends a bunch of times—but it’s also fun, and interesting, and sometimes the contestants have to apply makeup to a mannequin head thereby exposing a man who’s been catfishing as a woman. (Oh yeah, there’s a catfish element that makes very little logistical sense, but the Circle contestants love it.) Sometimes a group of people comes together and are nasty little drama starters, and sometimes a group comes together to nicely work their way through establishing a social order they can all coexist in. Each scenario usually occurs because of one powerful presence pushing the group toward honest connection or duplicitous strategy; oftentimes, that powerful presence ultimately wins the game, suggesting that maybe civilization isn’t just dictated by whims, fate, and reality television, but by conscious effort to advocate for the world you want to live in. Which has ultimately led me to two conclusions regarding the shift toward apocalypse TV:
1. Maybe if we can just keep these ideas inside our televisions—exploring the concept of a society based on rankings, or traversing a lava strewn floor, or dipping our toes into bestiality in the name of dating more honestly on-screen only—then we can learn from the efforts of these small televised sample groups, rather than implementing them in the world at the large. Maybe reality TV is still doing what it’s always done: reflecting the world back to us through a different lens—to entertain, and if we’re lucky, to educate. Or maybe …
2. When the apocalypse comes, it won’t be in the form of four fiery horsemen—it’ll be in the form of four sassy stalks of broccoli, inexplicably styled like Teen Wolf, singing a Beach Boys song to Jenny McCarthy. Because unfortunately, if the endless watchability of The Floor Is Lava and Love Is Blind and The Masked Singer are anything to go by, reality TV is indeed the spoonful of sugar that will make the apocalypse go down reeeeal easy.