Embracing the Idiot Box

Last week, when President Bush made a special television appearance to declare that he'd be supporting a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, I missed it. And when Iraq's religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, assembled a gaggle of television cameras to plead with the world-wide audience that democratic elections must be held in his country by the end of the year or risk eternal anarchy in the region, I missed that moment in history, too.

But when a platinum blonde from Atlanta named Carrie appeared on the show Elimidate to announce that she preferred men with "B.D.S." -- that's "big dick syndrome" to you and me -- I heard that one, baby. And then I turned up the volume.

"You qualify if it touches your belly button," Carrie explained in a Southern twang to her man-prey, Rob, a well-chiseled 28-year-old who said he owned a carpet cleaning business. As a drunken Rob nosed around in Carrie's neck, three other women in heavy make-up rolled their eyes. They wanted Rob's attention, too. So they tisk-tisked Carrie's ambition, called her a slut, and questioned her upbringing.

Did I mention they're wearing bikinis?

After living without a television set for ten years, last month I finally invited The Box into my home. The Box came loaded with 500 channels and a DirecTV satellite dish that, thanks to Pay-Per-View options, made my viewing opportunities limitless. At the flinch of my right thumb, I realized, I could eavesdrop on a conversation between Charlie Rose and Christopher Hitchens one moment, and the next, spy on the Biography Channel's epic on Winston Churchill. Or so I thought.

In my decade sans TV, I kept well informed of world events through a daily dose of the New York Times and a half dozen lefty journals and web sites. I didn't need television to tell me what was going on. I nibbled on New Yorkers nightly and made my way through a handful of non-fiction books each month. My job as a Bay Area journalist assured me of staying connected to real-life local news. In all of those years, the only time I envied my television-owning friends came during the precious moments they shared at the water cooler. Even though I felt left out, I tried to keep up. For instance, I heard Tony Soprano got divorced, but I didn't know why. Mostly, I was OK with that limited information. But there were other days, I must confess, when I was hopelessly lost in curiosity about what I'd missed.

Take March 5, 1999. That was the day after Barbara Walters interviewed Monica Lewinsky. Overhearing my coworkers that day, I was dying to know what the septuagenarian Wa-Wa sounded like when she asked Monica if she'd achieved orgasm at the hands of the President. And I desperately, desperately, wanted to see Monica's face when she answered the question.

I still haven't seen the clip, and probably never will.

So when my landlord said DirecTV could be piped into my studio for a measly ten bucks a month, I recalled the Lewinsky fallout (mine, not the country's) and said, "I'm on board." I made a silent pledge to watch only shows that were healthy for my head. I talked about covering The Box in a blanket, unveiling it only for Big Time Interviews or Major Sporting Events, like the Super Bowl. I told my girlfriend: We'll just use it for movies.

Three days later, I learned Charlie Rose refuses to shut up, and even when he does, his off-screen presence is so silently annoying it's unbearable to watch. The other "news" shows were predictably disappointing, and the Biography Channel documentaries that I'd heard so much about were so bogged down in commercials, you needed the patience of Job not to throw the remote through the screen. Even hanging out with PBS for more than an hour conjured up the groodie feelings associated with being panhandled. I had to walk away.

So far, in my month long experiment with the set, all the shows I expected to be good are bad, and all the bad ones are really good. In this peculiar calculus, nothing is worse than the reality dating show genre. And lowest of the low is Elimidate, which, of course, makes it the best thing on TV.

There's no irony here. A dude goes on a date with four women. They drink lots of booze. As the date goes on, the dude eliminates one girl per round.

On the surface, it sounds like a typical reality competition show, peppered with some T n' A, right? But unlike the million-dollar prize awaiting the winner of Survivor, Elimidate is the poor man's reality show. Contestants are offered only free drinks, presumably, but more importantly, they get to be on TV. James Carville once said you never know what you'll find by dragging a $100 bill through a trailer park. But that sounds like a waste of cash. Elimidate proves all you need to do is turn on a camera.

The true pleasure arises watching the women jockey for position. They don't use honesty or wit or intelligence to lure their man. Instead, they resort to humanity's darkest traits that are expressed in the most self-humiliating ways: catty vengeance, ham-fisted trickery, horny desperation.

Did I mention they're wearing bikinis?

In the aforementioned episode, a recent favorite, Carrie initiates a three-way kiss between herself, Rob and a half-comatose contestant named Deraline, who, earlier in the show, answers the question, "What do you do in your free time?" by saying she massages her fake breasts to keep them soft.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," she slurs.

Ultimately, Rob proves predictable in his Elimidate selection process. First, he cans Beverly, who he complains was too quiet. Said another way, her booty was too big. Second to go is January, despite her iron-tight abs. January has the most self-esteem, thus was most threatening to Rob's good time. See ya, January.

It comes down to Carrie, the unabashed ho, and Deraline, the passive-aggressive ho. In this world, Deraline actually has the upper hand because -- and listen up future Elimidate contestants -- no dude out there wants his mother to tune in and see her son dragging home the biggest skank in the bar. But the second biggest skank? That's just smart politicking.

Until I'd watched several episodes of Elimidate, I'm not sure I'd ever considered the nuanced strategy behind winning a televised dating show from the perspective of a hoochie-mamma. At first, it felt kinda gross, but then kinda fun.

In short, it offered me a re-entry ticket to the circle of water cooler banter. My newfound wisdom into the dating game genre didn't replace the daily erudition I gleaned from the Times, but it offered respite from missing WMDs and Aristide's fate. My brethren at the cooler welcomed me back with open arms, and then tipped me off to My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé.

Now, how's a stack of New Yorkers gonna compete with that?

Justin Berton is a Northern California-based writer.

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