When I used to watch wrestling, Ravi always reminded me of the rule, “If you see it on TV, it’s a work.” That is, in wrestling there are two types of events: works, which are part of the scripted show; or shoots, where one of the characters does something on their own, usually to upset the balance of whatever’s happening around them and forcing the cast to either improvise or scrap the whole thing. Shoots are exceedingly rare, but that didn’t stop us from speculating about them happening all the time, and Ravi would eventually (and often lamentably) repeat the mantra and we’d realize we’d been had. This is the point, of course. Not all that happens in the WWE is supposed to have the “shoot” quality to it—some of it is supposed to serve the story arc for those that have “marked out”/withheld disbelief. But a good percentage of it has an off-the-rails quality that’s intoxicating, and the more convincing it is, the more compelling television that’s produced. The successful execution of the “Montreal Screwjob”—the most famous shoot of all time—has probably done as much to make wrestling popular among certain segments of the population (stoner adolescent intellectuals, for instance) as anything else.
I thought about this while watching Survivorman, the one were Les Stroud is surviving in the Kalahari Desert. There’s no question the guy is an absolute badass, and the show’s “roughing it” quality is reinforced pretty consistently throughout each episode. He films every episode himself, and unlike Man vs. Wild host Bear Grylls, most definitely does NOT stay in hotels at night. (We’ll tackle this breach of trust shortly.) The only help he has each episode is either something totally vital to survival—like water in this episode—and an occasionally random assortment of other things. In this episode, he drove a jeep into the desert until it ran out of gas, then pillaged whatever he found within. In the cab, he found a plastic bag with empty soda cans and jars, a mostly empty jar of peanut butter, and a ful jar of jelly, and seemed bemused by the whole thing, as if this random assortment of shit was funny instead of helpful. Of course, to think those things got there randomly, especially the peanut butter, is just a joke, but there was so little peanut butter that it seemed almost useless to bother, and he ate one spoonful of the jelly before he realized it was too sweet to survive on. So: these things are useless? Well yes, for awhile, and long enough to forget their apparent futility. Three days later, he matter-of-factly (and ingeniously) sets the jars under scorpion holes so that the protein-rich critters will fall in, and disconnects tubing from the truck and smears the insde with jelly to attract other bugs and such. The thing is, I’ve seen this episode before and I didn’t notice the first time how blindingly obvious how preplanned the whole thing is, which is sort of the beauty of television, I guess. Fundamentally it doesn’t matter to me if these things are planned or not, because the essence of the show isn’t changed. It just makes for better television, and good TV is no accident, even if it often takes pains to present itself as such.
The Man vs. Wild thing, though, seemed like a breach of trust with the audience, and to this day I’ve never watched it. I don’t mind being tricked, but I want to know that I’ve been given all the necessary information to decode the trick.