I have seen the face of evil, and it is The Joe Schmo Show (Spike TV, Tuesday nights). Its concept-- a fake, rigged reality show populated by actors playing the roles of archetypal contestants except for one lone guy who thinks it's real-- is the most mean-spirited thing on television. It's one thing to be the brunt of a practical joke. It's another to be played for a fool on national television. Matt Gould, a pizza delivery guy from Pittsburg and the titular Schmo, has declined interviews and none of the producers will talk about how he feels now that he knows the truth. One assumes he's a mite miffed, and understandably so. The entire show is a parody of reality TV-- complete with an absurd eviction ceremony in which a collectors' plate of the evictee is shattered in the fireplace with the host solemnly announcing, "You're dead to us"-- and the joke's on him.
The thing of it is, the producers did their casting too well. They were looking for an all-American guy, and they got one. In the first two hours, Gould comes off as a genuinely nice guy. After archetypal "asshole" Hutch makes offensive comments and picks his nose at dinner, Gould pulls him aside and urges him to tone it down if he doesn't want to get voted out. When Hutch threatens "gay" contestant Kip during a competition, Gould immediately supports Kip and pledges his protection. You can't help but root for the guy.
Especially when he zigs instead of the zag producers expected. In a ridiculous immunity challenge called "Hands on the High-Priced Hooker," contestants are asked to keep a part of their body in constant contact with part of a naked adult film star's body. Gould is "randomly" assigned to keep his hand on her breast. The whole competition was rigged so that it would eventually come down to Gould vs. Hutch, but mere seconds after "Go!" Gould spoiled the plan by being the first to let go. The cast and crew were incredulous, and I was cheering. Gould is the ultimate underdog, and it's delightful to see him unwittingly throw a wrench in the producers' schemes.
It's easy to think Gould should have caught on to the gag. The first evicted contestant babbled an incoherent tirade lifted wholesale from Survivor; the "Lord of the Manor" robe is laughable; actors made a number of potentially fatal gaffes. But we're on the outside looking in. Gould was living with these actors, who were in character 24/7. He was in the game, playing for $100,000 grand. And there was definitely a television show being made. Why would he possibly suspect it was all a sham? Amidst all the scripted stories that are playing out around him, Gould stands as the only honest man in a sea of liars. As in The Truman Show, his sincerity makes him all the more appealing and the producers more dastardly.
If they'd put, say, Corey Feldman as the Schmo, I'd be laughing at every twisted lie he bought into. Instead their sap is turning out to be an unlikely hero. Audience sympathies are with him, not the producers. Miscalculation or intent? We're not sure. But one of the show's strengths is that it's not just a fake reality show, it's also "The Making Of" that show. We see behind-the-scenes footage of the cast getting their instructions for the day; interviews with the actors when they flub their roles; concerns of the producers when things don't go as planned. In other words, the audience is let in on the joke. And as we're rooting for Matt Gould, we're also marveling at what went into making this happen and the sheer audacity of it.
No doubt about it, The Joe Schmo Show is evil. And I'm hooked.