Virtuous Reality

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With the debuts this week of NBC's Darwinian, trash-talking quiz show "The Weakest Link" and UPN's blind-dates-in-bondage series "Chains of Love," you can expect to hear renewed cries that TV has finally gone too far (again!). This will probably not bother the networks airing the programs. There's no better advertisement for a reality show than the declaration that it's a hell-bound handbasket ready to take on passengers.

But it's not exactly true. Yes, reality shows often show the lyingest, lustiest lows of human behavior, and we've come to automatically assume that they're amoral at best, soul-corroding at worst. (That's pretty much why we watch them.) What reality-TV critics and fans alike fail to see, however, is that the shows are really constructed as tiny morality plays: At the center of each show's premise is a simple, Goofus-and-Gallant lesson about how to live with other people.

This probably seems odd to say about shows that make stars of fat naked guys with Napoleon complexes. But there's always been a symbiotic relationship between sleaze and sermonizing. Tent-show preachers are at their most compelling when they get going about FOR-ni-KAY-shun. Dostoevsky, a writer with an intense moral vision, was an inveterate gambler and wrote about prostitutes and murderers; Hieronymus Bosch conveyed an impassioned vision of heaven and hell in "Garden of Earthly Delights" — but it contains some of the most indelible orgy scenes in art history. Between the two of them, they could have made one hell of a reality series.

We're not saying that students will someday study Mark Burnett in graduate literature seminars, or that Mark Walberg thought he was doing the Lord's work on "Temptation Island." But the same principle applies: Scratch beneath the seaminess and you find some of the most conventionally moral programming on television, highly symbolic, old-fashioned primers on cohabitating, cooperating, even playing fair. Go ahead and watch for the bikinis and backstabbing. The fact is, everything you need to know about life, you can learn from reality.

Can the very rules of a game make it immoral? Susan Sarandon thinks so. The statement-minded actress condescended to guest-star on NBC's "Friends" because, she said, its rival "Survivor" is a game that "[rewards] behavior that shouldn't be rewarded." Unlike the more wholesome chess (which rewards sacrificing the weak to protect the important) or Monopoly (which rewards price gouging)? Hard fought as it is — as in pretty much any game, there's only one winner — "Survivor" is also based on social precepts most people try to teach their toddlers. Play well with others: "Survivor" is not kind to loners, like this season's Kel and Debb. Share your goodies: When Colby brought back chunks of an endangered coral reef for his tribe mates after winning a day trip, the calculated baksheesh bolstered his position. Don't be bossy: Jerri's pushiness ultimately led to her tribal alliance's surprise turn against her. Indeed, despite the conventional line that the game is all about treachery, the alliances on both seasons of the show have more often than not held together — so much so that the producers have had to edit creatively to create suspense. If the players won't play tricks, the camera has to.

We all laughed last year when NBC signed "Chains of Love" — in which a "picker," male or female, is chained to four "dates" over four days — and called it a "relationship show." (NBC later took the high road and aired the XFL instead.) Turns out the description was accurate. The surprising thing about "Chains" (UPN, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. E.T.) is not the PG-rated sex play (the chainees wear chaste bathing suits even in a hot tub) but the discovery that even reality-TV exhibitionists have thoroughly internalized the chatty psychobabble of relationship gurus. In the debut, picker Andy spends less time trying to score than prattling about his dates' "honesty," "self-esteem" and "defensiveness." If you were expecting chained heat, you will discover something more like "Big Brother" (whose makers coproduce Chains), which promised scandal but delivered group therapy.

Fox's "Temptation Island" — in which four unmarried couples tried to resist a bevy of hot singles — was, in most people's opinion, the show most likely to induce God to consume Earth with tongues of flame. Unless, for the most part, those people were under 35. The audience that made "Island" a hit grew up in an era of 50 percent divorce rates; for them, it offered more than campy, sexy entertainment. It was also a wholehearted, even corny, testament to making imperfect relationships work, despite slights, misunderstandings and the occasional striptease with a stranger. It couldn't have had heavier-handed cues if it were produced by Pat Robertson: when a "date" veered close to real cheating (which never went anywhere), we heard tense music straight out of a soap opera; and up swelled the sappy synths when couples decided to stay together, as it turned out each one did.

It may be odd to look for moral uplift in "Boot Camp" (Fox, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.), a military-training "Survivor" look-alike that prompted a lawsuit from CBS (since swiping hit concepts is unheard-of in the TV business). But while it is derivative and goofy — the screaming "drill instructors" put the "camp" in "Boot Camp" — it also shows a kind of olive-drab heart. Its major structural difference from "Survivor" is the most telling: the "recruits" conduct grueling reward challenges, not in teams, but as one unit. It's the most literal example of a widespread reality-show theme: that ordinary folk (including a professional balloon sculptor), working together and given motivation, can gut it out mentally and physically — that your real opponent is yourself.

Reality-show hosts are half devil, half angel, tempter and comforter. (Think Jeff Probst offering starving Survivors extra vittles in exchange for their tent.) Not so Anne Robinson of "The Weakest Link" (NBC, Mondays, 8 p.m. E.T.), a British import game show with a "Survivor" twist: players vote each other off. The dour, sarcastic host dismisses losers with a curt "You are the weakest link. Good-bye." (Thanks to NBC's weeks-long ad blitz, it may be the first TV catchphrase Americans have got sick of before its show even aired). But there's an integrity to her evil-Regis act. She mercilessly skewers the weak, but her tongue-lashings — "Slow coaches and ditherers have no place on the team!" — are an implicit reproach to players who would vote their strongest rivals off (the last one standing wins the whole pot). To Robinson, this kind of strategist is a "coward." As a quiz show, "Link" is quotidian. But if it does click with Yanks, we have a guess why: In an era of economic contraction, it is a parable on how to equitably fire people. Don't base it on personal factors. Measure performance objectively. And what is Robinson but the game-show equivalent of the joyless mouthpieces employers have to do their hatcheting for them? You might not want Robinson to pink-slip you. But at least you would know the next guy will get it just as bad. Nothing personal at all. Good-bye.