September 24, 2016
The Real Deal
Posted on Jan 28, 2011
A wolf-whistle from the campfire. “How about some rock and roll?” cries Stan. “You can leave your hat on…”
Even Shaneequio cracks a smile.
“What, from Miss Priss?” says Candy.
“Oh, cut her some slack,” says Simon.
“Go fuck yourself, you little pussy,” Candy says. “Go write a poem.”
The scene devolves into insults and grumbles. No one looks at the sky. No one notices when the first stars emerge between tattered clouds, constellations never before observed by man or woman, created specially, and at great expense, with algorithms developed in Cupertino.
From idea to pitch, then a string of meetings in which the suits were frankly uncomprehending but intrigued. Free will: a concept of such beautiful simplicity no one quite knew how to discuss it. You chose the environment, replete with its own challenges, dropped the unsuspecting players into it and left them alone. No host, no gags, no idiotic games. And no intervention. When they pointed out how much they’d save in casting and postproduction costs, the suits raised their eyebrows and leaned back in their chairs.
“We’re thinking of calling it Abandonned! With an exclamation mark,” the producer said. The suits frowned. “We’re not married to it,” he said.
They’d had to leverage every ounce of Armand’s reputation, but in the end they got everything they wanted. Six months later they were in the Everglades, sweating their asses off, watching ten exhausted strangers learn to hate each other, their manners and habits unraveling into atavism. A year later all the networks were trying to copy what they’d done. There were licensed clones of the show in eight countries.
But now their revolution is in trouble, their innovations passé. Once upon a time people had wanted an unfiltered window into the lives of their fellow man and woman, a mirror held up to the world. Sure, that mirror had to be adjusted, the window tinted, a nudge here, an edit there, to reel the story in—reality, after all, is infinite and ever changing; television, on the other hand, is all too finite. You needed to schedule your spots with some degree of accuracy. But the idea! The idea had been sound.
Now the market is flooded with crude gimmicks, ever more extravagant rewards. The mirror is warped beyond recognition. In its spare simplicity the idea has come to seem priggish, as quaint as the original working title. How can the producer compete with shows about extreme sex reassignment, public-transit sabotage, hunger strike competitions? A source in Burbank says Boby is developing an Ultimate Fighting show featuring spouses with a history of domestic violence. Before such spectacle, such degradation, the producer feels helpless, a dinosaur. Even the blogs have turned against him. They’d gotten the green light for the new season, but everyone can sense a reckoning coming, a new paradigm taking shape: postreality, though no one can yet say what that means.
“Listen up, people!” Bernatelli tears a strip of denim from a blackened pair of jeans, ties it around his head Rambo-style. “I know you’re tired. I know it’s been a tough day. But let me tell you all something –”
The producer, in full lotus on the floor of his quarters, closes his eyes. “When the going gets tough…” he says.
“When the going gets tough…” Bernatelli says.
The producer hits mute.
With each passing season he grows less convinced of the Deserted’s reality, of their basic humanity. They’re cardboard cutouts, the personas they develop ever more elaborate and yet more predictable. Miley, one of the APs, calls it “televolution,” the way their personalities hew ever closer to those of previous seasons, other shows, their triumphs, failures, love affairs, betrayals converging like images in an elevator mirror. And they’re happy to do it: They’re killing each other for the opportunity. No humiliation or discomfort is too much. The sex-changers, the mothers who beat their children on camera, the couples who document their own ugly divorces. The husbands who screw their secretaries, the wives who screw their trainers, the secretaries who screw their bosses’ wives. Cinemax’s new show follows a group of high-school girls in a contest to give the most blowjobs on a summer trip to Europe. Hookers turned kindergarten teachers, housewives turned hookers, drug dealers turned Christian marriage counselors. Whole families cooking up publicity stunts in their garages. Prison inmates rioting with story outlines in their back pockets. It’s been a long time since The Wrecking Ball, when they’d just knock on someone’s door and offer her a new home.
“It’s like they’re writing it for us,” the producer tells Armand. “Who taught them to do that?”
“Why, you did,” says Armand. “We both did.”
They’re quiet a moment, strains of mariachi music coming through the phone, the plaintive strains of a lovesick singer. They still serenade in San Miguel, Armand says. The men still stand below their beloved’s window and pour out their souls, despite the millions who’ve done it before.
“It was supposed to be about unpredictability,” the producer says. “Remember? About how different people are. It’s depressing.”
“There’s this lovely café just off the main square,” says Armand. “Have I told you? Colorful umbrellas, tables right on the sidewalk. I sit there all afternoon, sometimes, and at four o’clock the vocational school across the street lets out, all these young men in black pants, white button-down shirts, twenty, twenty-one…” The music comes closer, Armand puts down the phone—the producer can hear him waving off the band. “Anyway, it makes me happy just watching.”
“Up to your old tricks,” the producer says, flicking the sound back on.
On the island, the campfire is dying, the faces of the Deserted fading to shadow. From the dark interior comes the lonesome howl of a coyote. It’s the same coyote that howled across the Steppe, the same coyote that stalked the Deserted through the Tetons. “You hear the one about the little kid, the queer, and the priest in a rowboat?” says Bernatelli. The others groan. The sky has cleared to a sad, nacreous indigo, spattered with brilliant stars in intricate patterns.
“Look up,” says the producer. No one looks up.
The stars had been Miley’s idea, an ambitious deal with Pixar that involved points on the show’s syndication, Making Of… rights, and generous advertising for WALL•E III.
If they already know what’s expected of them, why pay consultants to build the perfect cast? You could scoop ten people off the street and soon they’d be forming cabals, plotting revenge, making threats, performing fellatio, sobbing on cue. You didn’t have to create the Deserted: just give people a chance to express the Deserted they already wanted to be.
“Look up, dumbasses,” he says. He closes his eyes, squeezes the stone until his forearm aches.
When he opens them, there’s Gloria, caught unawares by a sand-cam as she picks something out of her teeth. What role is she playing? Who has she decided to be?
The producer has no idea.
After an eternity, she lets out a sigh and turns away from the others. While he holds his breath, Gloria leans back in the sand and at last lifts her face to the lovely, perilous sky.
Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Foster Altschul from “Deus Ex Machina.” Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.
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