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CR3 #75: Deus Ex Machina by Andrew Foster Altschul

I know that reality television is destroying our brains. I know that it's irreparably damaged the scripted television industry. I know that it is a worthless waste of time. And yet...I still love some of it.

I'm picky about the reality I watch. I don't like anything medical-related. Both Hoarders and Intervention are deeply psychologically upsetting to me. I generally avoid dating shows (with the notable exception of Rock of Love--that was trashy in ways I had previously never imagined). I feel particularly strongly about not watching reality shows featuring children (they are at the mercy of their attention-whoring parents, and thus unable to avoid the damage that comes from being exposed to the world). I try to be ethical about my reality show choices. I don't want to give my support in any way to shows that include the word "wives" in the title, nor do I want to support shows that reward people for popping out an unreasonable number of children (both that show about those people with 19 kids and Teen Mom would fit into this category).

As for things I like: I will watch anything with a drag queen on it. I love to watch pretty girls cry on America's Next Top Model. I like shows like Project Runway or America's Best Dance Crew where talented people have to overcome challenges to try and create something. Watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition makes me feel good about myself because they are actually helping people. But the gateway drug is definitely Survivor.  Take a group of people, drop them in some out of the way spot, force them to participate in challenges, and make them vote EACH OTHER off the island until only one is left. The show has the potential to be tremendous--in past seasons, there have been moments of wild humor, pathos, and extreme drama. All of the players attempt via different strategies to be the last one standing. There have been years when the least likely players have managed somehow to make it to the end. And of course there is the joy in watching the heat, hunger, lack of sleep, constant stress, and sheer inability to have a moment of privacy get to these people. Some of them just lose their minds, and then they become REALLY interesting. Obviously, the show has changed a lot over the years. Now there is more product placement ("And now we are heading to our Charmin Toilet Paper toilet hut!"), more manipulation of the game itself (dividing tribes by age or race, immunity idols, making sure the women are all stranded in totally inappropriate clothing), and worst, the players now understand being on TV. They plan to play a character, instead of allowing their genuine personalities to emerge. They know they can turn three weeks of Survivor into a career of club appearances, TV guide channel shows, and other reality television. It's changed the way they approach the game, which has in turn changed the game.

Deus Ex Machina is the story of "the producer." He created a show called "The Deserted," which seems to be a Survivor clone. The original concept was to drop ten people off and just watch them exist.  However, by the time the book begins, The Deserted has mutated into something unbearable. It's all product placement, network meddling, and online polls. The producer doesn't know what's happening, but he knows that it's not what he originally wanted. Meanwhile, this season's Deserted stumble around the island, playing for all they're worth. The production crew follow, documenting everything that happens, and trying to figure out where the line is between improving and intervening. After a while, the whole mess begins to go mad, and the producer starts to lose his grip.

The story feels very similar to a Chuck Palahniuk novel, in that it starts out sort of reasonable, then starts to spiral out into more and more insanity. The language is fairly stark, and in some places the plot can be a bit difficult to follow, since the producer is both experiencing what's happening now and flashing back to things that happened in the past. It's tough to say whether the characterization is good or not, because most of the characters are meant to be caricatures, especially the Deserted players. For anyone who has watched at least a season of Survivor, this book feels familiar, but also slightly disturbing. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys reality TV or at least discussing the ethics of it.

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