I missed the penultimate episode of TNT’s The Hero last week because I was at a conference (and doing much more interesting things than watching TV), but finally caught up with the show last night. I’m glad I did, in part because the finale is tonight (8/1) and in part because it was one of the most emotionally satisfying episodes of the show.
It feels really odd to write the words “emotionally satisfying” about a reality show, but The Hero has been an interesting experiment. The premise isn’t much different from any other challenge-style TV show: a cross-section of contestants chosen for their looks and personalities are lumped together and put through various TV-ready tortures, then kicked off the show one by one. What’s different is the up-front emphasis on ethics: while all competition shows involve questions of ethics (Should a player lie to get ahead? What should she do if she’s presented with the opportunity to sabotage another player?), The Hero puts those questions front and center. It’s mission is to determine “America’s Hero,” and while the show certainly shapes viewer expectations about who that hero is–someone who overcomes physical challenges, someone relatively young and good-looking, someone who conforms to social norms of gender and sexuality–it also baits the audience, asking questions like: should family be put before strangers? Is it acceptable to desire success only for oneself? Is it more “heroic” to pursue every challenge or to allow others to take one’s place?
My two favorite moments from last night involved the point of no return for two players. (And really, the editors of this show have done an amazing job in creating “hero’s journeys” for all the contestants–including an antihero/villain’s journey for Marty. What had previously made him a character to root for–his enthusiasm and energy–was revealed to have a dark side: a particularly childish and blind selfishness.)
The first point of no return was crossed by Patty: a self-identified “just a mom” who started the show with an acute fear of heights and a reluctance to champion herself.
In the penultimate episode, she chose to cross a five hundred foot high wire alone in order to win a team challenge.
And Patty did it like a boss.
Basically, after this episode, I really wanted a Patty action figure.
But the best moment was when Charles Katnissed The Hero.
Charles–for some background–has been one of the quietest members of the show, but also one of the most thoughtful. He’s a police officer IRL, and though the show’s grand prize–$610,000, after Patty’s successful wire-walk–was an obvious draw for him to compete, he also seemed to be on a kind of spiritual quest: a desire to prove himself worthy in his own eyes as much as anyone else’s. Earlier in the season–after the announcement of a win-or-gtfo open-sea swim challenge–Charles talked about being inspired by Eddie Aikau, a Hawaiian lifeguard who sacrificed himself in an attempt to save members of his crew, and was visibly saddened when he didn’t get the opportunity to face the challenge, even though, in all probability, he would have failed and been eliminated.
In the penultimate episode, after Patty’s challenge, the players were informed (via a message on the panel tv in the players’ penthouse) that of the six remaining players, only five would be eligible to win the whole competition, and the players had to decide on–then vote off–one person. Charles saw the message first, thought about it, then returned to the kitchen where the other players were sitting.
And then he Katnissed The Hero.
He volunteered himself for elimination, with the rationale that a true hero would sacrifice himself for his team, thus ensuring that the (imo) most heroic member of the show could not be voted “the hero.”
His action underscored the arbitrary and needlessly narrow world of the television “reality” show: while the format demands that we have only one “hero,” the reality is that we have many.
It was–scripted or not–a rather brilliantly meta moment in a TV series that, while superficially all swagger and hoo-rah, has quietly and deliberately challenged viewer perceptions from episode one.
If you don’t believe me, go check it out. Episodes are available through iTunes and Amazon.