Here’s scary news for stand-up comics: On Halloween, reality TV officially graduates to beyond the point of parody.
That’s the night U.S. insomniacs will receive their first glimpse of “There’s Something About Miriam.” Previewing the pithily titled British import triggered a blinding flash of illumination, much like the scene where Ned Beatty’s corporate titan lectures Peter Finch’s crazed Howard Beale in “Network.”
On its face, “Miriam” is a conventional dating show, except that the pouty Mexican model choosing from among six randy young men is a pre-op transsexual — a fact revealed to viewers but not the contestants, during a premiere that promises “the sexual adventure of a lifetime,” “one big surprise” and “a secret that the guys don’t know.”
As coyly constructed, the show’s use of Miriam’s penis approximates the shark’s role in “Jaws”: Just knowing it’s lurking down there helps maintain a certain level of suspense.
Granted, it’s an acquisition on a little-seen cable network, derived from the reality staple of borrowing movie concepts — in this case, “The Crying Game.” Yet between “Miriam” and “Kid Nation” — CBS’ “Survivor” knockoff with child castaways — a dam has finally burst, forcing comics who once milked laughs from lampooning reality TV to look elsewhere.
Take this week’s “30 Rock” premiere, when Alec Baldwin’s anything-for-a-rating exec boasts about his latest hit, “MILF Island,” stranding teenage boys with hot moms. Alas, it’s not as funny when the fictional exaggeration isn’t any more outlandish than the real thing.
Even in Britain, where “Miriam” aired on Sky TV in 2004, the show was controversial. The male contestants actually sought to block the program from airing (one supposedly punched a producer after the secret was revealed), eventually agreeing to a settlement that allowed the show to go on. As for the U.S., because Fox Reality is a single-feed network the telecasts won’t play until 1 a.m. Eastern time, ensuring that episodes start at 10 p.m. on the West Coast.
Each new wrinkle, of course, invites renewed discussion about where the line currently resides. Fox Reality prexy David Lyle, for example, cited a Dutch stunt this year in which patients vied for a kidney transplant.
The special turned out to be a hoax, but Lyle says of the ensuing hubbub, “I was surprised that people could still be surprised.” In regard to the genre’s limits, Lyle adds: “If no one is hurt, and it’s all consenting adults … then it’s hard to imagine where ‘too far’ is.”
Lyle didn’t intend it, but that disclaimer explains the uproar over “Kid Nation.” While it’s easier to express contempt toward anything-to-be-on-TV adults — though “Miriam” clearly tests how much you can mislead even them — it’s hard to argue that a 10 year old should have known better, however stupid his parents are.
The secondary message from “Miriam” is that gay has become yesterday’s TV frontier, which perhaps accounts for the recent drop in gay characters. In the quest to titillate, transgender individuals are the flavor du jour, from FX developing a series around the topic to Rebecca Romijn’s “Ugly Betty” character to “Dirty Sexy Money’s” adulterous liaison.
As for the next taboo movie premise, for years producers have been pitching variations on “The Naked Prey” (remember “The Runner,” anyone?), in which a stripped-down Cornel Wilde raced through the jungle while African natives hunted him. Sooner or later, look for somebody to substitute paintballs for spears and unleash the hounds.
In a roundabout way, this brings us back to “Network,” Paddy Chayefsky’s enduring 1976 condemnation of TV excess run amok. Two years ago, George Clooney floated producing a remake for CBS, marveling that when he screened the movie for a modern audience, younger members didn’t recognize its wildest flourishes as satire.
“I couldn’t understand it, (then) I realized that everything Chayefsky wrote about happened,” Clooney told the Associated Press. “And so, suddenly, the idea that the anchor is more important that the news story, and that you’d be doing sort of reality-based shows with heads of gangs and Sybil the Soothsayer all happened.”
As for comedians, if your act includes riffing on bizarre TV concepts, it’s time for new material. Fortunately, there’s always something to say about Britney and Lindsay, too.