Monday, April 18, 2011

Circus Minimus

The old canard about the U.S. falling as did Rome rings hollow whenever you turn on the television. The empire may be collapsing, but like a mushroom, as it shrivels it releases spores by the hundred thousand. U.S. culture is viral—surely our biggest export after weapons is "entertainment."

Rome's entertainment in its twilight included the famous "panem et circenses," or bread & circuses: free bread given to the populo barbaro while they enjoyed gladiatorial entertainments—it was thrown, like meat to dogs, in "Gladiator". One could argue that Ultimate Cage Fighting is the first step towards the Circus Maximus, but in fact we have used our privilege as stewards of the earth to leap straight to televised eviscerations and gore: with bugs.

This one's vegetarian, so its tough's all bluff.
Monster Bug Wars is the Science Channel's new series about life and death in the insect world. Each segment (as it were) exhibits a different "Vs." battle a la Mortal Kombat, wherein the loser is processed by both victor and zoom lenses, overdubbed with gnashing, roaring, or screeching. What strikes me after the first couple of entrail smoothies is that every battle is decontextualized. The narrator always tells you in a nature show in what country the scene is taking place; here, it is "in the rainforest/desert...". 

It turns out these ARE real arenas. The woodchips and plants appear to be from a box store; I didn't know WalMart sold hollow logs. It's all artfully done but the settings' repetitive artifice becomes clear over time. There is no natural foodchain being sustained. Therein lies what bugs me about the show.

It's not the "pain" or "cruelty," since the scientific consensus is that insects do not feel pain. It's not the gore; at least somebody's getting a survival meal out of it, unlike CSI or Fear Factor. Adding to the blood sport feel are the two charming entomologists who serve as sports commentators, though there's no banter between them.

Animals eating in zoos is boring television fodder. We've seen every kind of sport. Nature shows have a limited audience. Everyone hates bugs. Graphic death is entertaining, and eating gross stuff is neat. At the bizarre nexus of these focus-group suppositions is Monster Bug Wars, satisfying numerous spectator impulses for its own sake, but without the integrity to admit it's more cockfight than natural phenomenon. It's a paint-by-numbers of the perverse tastes television has fostered in us, and the smallest circus maximus about the smallest gladiators that everyone is glad to see dead.

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