Briefly Noted: “Sex House,” The Onion’s Reality TV Parody

Spoilers galore ahead

Sex House: Meet the Nymphos, Ep. 1

Sex House is written and acted well, with a very high production value. But it is also crass, filthy, gross and creepy. As a trashy critique of trash, it hardly seems necessary. Isn’t the best response to the garbage that is reality tv to leave it alone? To pretend it will go away?

Ay, there’s the rub: Sex House is about how what drives reality tv won’t go away soon. It shows us vulnerable contestants ripe for exploitation, corporations and media that only think of their consumers as the lowest common denominator, and concludes with the rough idea that our democratic ideals have less to do with the “Rights of Man” and more to do with D-list celebrity.

A good place to start talking about the series is in examining where it shocks most: the creepy end of the first episode. A 45 year old married man, father of two, gets drunk and sleeps with an 18 year old right out of high school. It was about that point I thought to stop watching, except that all the other characters showed that they felt what happened wasn’t right. As Sex House isn’t actually reality tv, I expected the writers to do something with this and not just document a few momentary reactions, moving on to something else. If they did the latter, they wouldn’t really parody reality tv, just mimic one of its worst aspects.

As it stands, the writers didn’t disappoint. There were indications earlier in the episode that the series was going somewhere different. Frank, the 45 year old, started the show saying he didn’t want to have sex with anyone. He had won a contest and decided to be on tv. The house has tons of alcohol and, from our vantage, no food save an occasional banana. The producers are continually pressuring everyone to have sex. The 18 year old, of course, knows virtually nothing.

One might say: “But they’re signing up for a show called ‘Sex House!’ How can they not realize what’s going on?” I could say they’re dumb – it definitely applies to everyone on the show – but that isn’t quite right. We learn later that the house has virtually no food except for pumpernickel, which molds fast. We also see that while the house has been made on the cheap and falls into disrepair fast, it has been rigged up to allow total control over the cast. There’s no way out and vents can blow sleeping gas into the house.

In other words, yeah, they’re dumb, but if someone’s goal is to exploit you, then no matter how smart you are, they will probably find a way if they’re relentless enough. Frank is actually a good example of how such relentlessness works. You’re comfortable and living in suburbia. You vaguely remember how wild college got, you certainly think if someone creates a show called “Sex House” that will show on television channels that aren’t pay-per-view, it must be more hype than actual vice. You can’t imagine that you’ll be locked in house full of liquor and told repeatedly to have sex, which is actually what happens on most reality tv shows.

You can’t imagine, to put it another way, how low people will stoop for attention and dollars. This is less a critique of the contestants, more of what governs reality tv. Reality tv is far cheaper than producing a sitcom, and I’m sure it is thought to appeal to a less educated audience. It looks like the rough idea is to get a hit series from shock value and see if that hype can be turned into advertising dollars.

Sex House emphasizes just how cheap and cruel the executives in charge of the show are. They won’t feed people unless they get what they think drives ratings from the cast. Access to medical care – making sure the health and well-being of the contestants is taken care of – is an absolute joke. I’m not really sure how much of a parody this is, given the mental instability of some on actual reality tv shows.

The cheapness and cruelty, however, is not coming from some evil person in a media company laughing as blood money pours through the ceiling. It has to do with the assumptions that caused the show in the first place. The very relentlessness that exploits the cast is a double-edged sword which locks the producers into bad thinking. The producers actually believe that more sex is more ratings. Advertisers think that brands can be established through product placement alone, that visibility, not reputation, is good enough. That reality tv not so infrequently collapses into violence – that a lot of shows feature people getting into fights over nothing, that you can conceive of producers on these shows letting people get hurt, at the least – is testament to not thinking of a product as something that fills a need others have. That would involve seeing people as ends in themselves. Rather, they’re just cogs in a hype machine. The powers involved are pledged to make a quick buck; that lack of character development on a show is indicative of more than not paying for something well-written.

Where Sex House really got me thinking is the Reunion episode. There it turns out everyone after the show is a D-list celebrity and *cough* a blogger. What you get for reality tv is a little bit of fame, and it is a drug. You may not be making money or doing anything worthwhile with your life, but you’re trying to extend those 15 minutes as best you can. It isn’t hard to think that in a down economy where a cultural bias exists anyway against hiring (the fastest way to cut costs is labor), this is the only good we have left for people, that they can be someone because people care to watch them. I owe you guys something on Heidegger and on poetry, but I wonder about what I just said about relentlessness above. It’s hard to know where you yourself stand when our incentives are so skewed, when too much honesty is a form of manipulation.

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