Television

Torture TV

Doing The Chamber one better.

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After but a handful of episodes, Fox has cancelled The Chamber, the first American quiz show to incorporate torture. (Physical torture, that is: Anne Robinson's verbal abuse and Jimmy Kimmel's jokes don't count.) Its contestants were pummeled not just with trivia but with wind, water, and pain–sort of an anti-intellectual way to make the questions harder. I wasn't there when this was pitched to the network, but I can imagine what was said. "It's like Win Ben Stein's Money meets The Fear Factor!" Or maybe: "It's like Jeopardy!, except they're in actual jeopardy."

Only they weren't. At a time when police brutality is becoming intellectually respectable, Fox shot for the Zeitgeist and missed. That's because the show got the dynamics of torture wrong: You don't use pain to distract people from answering questions, you use it to induce them to tell things they wouldn't ordinarily reveal. The tricky issue, from a showman's perspective, is how to bring the carrot of cash prizes and the stick of torture into harmony.

To that end, consider a prospectus for a show called Informant.

There are two hosts. One, the Good Cop, will offer contestants money. The other, the Bad Cop, will torture them if they refuse to answer, or if they answer incorrectly. (Any number of showbiz figures could fill these roles, but I nominate Ken Lay for the first job and Alan Dershowitz for the second.) To ensure the proper degree of realism, the hosts will not know the answers to the questions being asked. Instead, they'll rely on an instant vote among the studio audience, which can weigh for itself whether a given contestant appears to be lying, or simply seems shifty, or maybe just has it coming.

The participants will be conscripts, of course: plucked from other game shows, from nearby airports, from INS detention centers. Rather than banter with the guests about their lives, the hosts will subject them to periodic random strip-searches. The questions could cover all sorts of topics, but here are some suggestions:

"Suppose there were a ticking time-bomb in this building. Where do you suppose it might be hidden?"

"You don't have any idea where Osama bin Laden might be, do you?"

"Why are you still speculating about Osama bin Laden, when we face an even greater threat from the likes of North Korea?"

When sweeps month comes around, the network could draw in more viewers by adding special variations: tax-free prizes, celebrity contestants, etc. Are you listening, network executives?