When Fox Reality Channel ceases to exist at the end of this month* I will not exactly shed any tears. The idea of a cable network devoted entirely to reality television shows is good in theory, but spending more than five minutes perusing the cable listings will show you how downright superfluous it is.
Seriously, EVERY cable network is devoted entirely to reality television shows. Sort of. It seems like it. There are a LOT of reality shows on cable, is what I’m trying to say.
And while almost all of Fox Reality’s original programming was to put it kindly terrible (remember Sex Decoys?), there was one very bright spot in an otherwise barren broadcasting schedule: Solitary.
The concept of this show is as sadistic as it is simple. Nine people are locked away in small octagonal isolation pods. There is a bathroom and a changing area outside of this pod, but they are left with no contact with the outside world. Their only companion is the computer called “VAL,” who is the sister perhaps to “HAL” from 2001: A Space Odyssey, who has locked these volunteers away in order to experiment on them, to test the limits of their endurance. She refers to the participants not by name, but by the number of their pod. Calling them by their numbers dehumanizes the contestants in such a way as to make their torment even more delightful – I mean of course, bearable – for the human audience.
The last to remain in his/her pod receives $50,000. They will have earned that money by the end.
This season, the fourth (and hopefully not last – come on, some cable net needs to pick this show up) has been particularly entertaining. For the participants’ first challenge, they had to collect their own sweat. They were given plastic jump suits to help increase their body temperature, and also provided with various implements (a squeegee, a sponge) with which to soak up the sweat, to collect in vials. The winner of that particular challenge, Eriq (or Erik, I've seen it spelled both ways) the rapper from pod 8 (here is his twitter feed -- I couldn't really find a good pic), sweats even more than I do, and won going away, filling something like 30 vials. The loser, whose name and number I’ve forgotten, filled maybe two.
Another challenge (actually, VAL calls them “treatments”) involved forcing the contestants to spank themselves. Again, I am serious, and this is a real show and it is delightful. The numbers had to use a wooden board to hit themselves with enough force to create a sound that would register on an old-thyme applause meter. There is nothing like seeing a group of people smacking themselves raw, especially when, let’s face it, three of the women are quite physically appealing.
The contestants continue with the treatments for as long as they’re able – until they quit and push the red button located within their pods – or their bodies quit and they pass out or throw up. In the case of the spanking challenge, I was disappointed to see the very attractive dancer (even the dispassionate VAL commented upon her appearance), a voluptuous blond in pod 4, press that red button after spanking her butt red.
The dancer and the rapper were definitely two of my favorite contestants and I was sorry to see them go, but I confess I’ve been rooting for the occupant of pod 9, the “children’s entertainer,” Liberty, who claims to have once been in a polyamorous relationship (this was revealed during a previous challenge – VAL told all the contestants one significant fact about each of them, and then everyone voted on whether to reward or penalize the contestant on the basis of these facts). She’s tough, smart, good-looking, and as I’ve already mentioned, she’s been in a polyamorous relationship. In other words, she’s four-for-four.
This week, the contestants finished off last week’s challenge, in which they were forced to dress in ape suits and perform a series of tiring and humiliating tasks, including banging cymbals, running around their pods, and eating bananas. Gosh I do love this show.
Professional game show contestant pod number 5 occupant gave up and hit the red button. VAL of course doesn’t tell the other contestants, who keep going, afraid of being the first to quit and therefore forced to leave the competition. This is another of the show’s delightful aspects. Someone quits, but VAL keeps pushing everyone else. The occupant of pod 3, a girl who played HS football, has a hard time keeping her bananas down. In a previous challenge she threw up, but she wasn’t the first to throw up, which is why she remains.
Yep, two contestants threw up during the “make-them-eat-disgusting-crap” challenge.
Finally, 3 throws up in the next “penalty” round, and is forced to hit the red button. She just couldn’t eat another banana. Now two contestants have quit, but there are still three contestants in the game, and so VAL forces them to continue. My favorite, Liberty in pod 9, finally throws up at 17 bananas. She does it with as much dignity as she can muster, “It’s coming dude, I can tell,” she says, lifting her trash can.
Two remain, number 7 the Missionary, and number 2 the martial artist. VAL messes with their heads, telling them they’ll have to consume two bananas in 60 seconds. From their reactions, you’d think they’d just been told they have to consume a live aardvark.
Then she lets them off the hook, and they’re given their next “treatment.” Half their pods are closed off by jail cell bars. So it’s like they’re in a jail cell inside their jail cell. VAL lets them stew for awhile, and they mostly sulk on the floor. Then VAL gives them their first meal, which consists of yet another banana, and one of the energy bars.
The occupant of pod 6, who was spared having to go through the previous treatment, doesn’t mind so much. But no one else wants to eat another banana.
VAL then instructs the contestants to write “letters home.” The contestants read these rambling, incoherent and tear-stained notes in whiny, shaky voices. The Missionary says “I don’t want anyone I know to ever watch this. It’s just me, all alone, in a pod, being a little whiny bitch.” The martial artist in pod 2 says “My body’s beat up; I really think I’m going crazy. I know that I am on the brink of insanity.”
From there, the letters start to get sad.
The Missionary confides that she has always wanted to be on TV. She’s always felt invisible, she says. She might be the first honest reality show contestant ever. Either that or she’s just gone nuts.
(By the way, if you start to feel sorry for the contestants please remember that they are appearing on this show of their own free will, and apparently many of them have profiles at Reality Wanted, where reality show producers look for talent. I'm not saying they "deserve what they get," but they do deserve what they get.)
Finally, the contestants have to “break out” of their cells. Over 20 keys are strewn throughout their pods, and they have to find the six keys that open the six locks that hold them. The keys on the floor are decoys; the keys they want are hanging on the walls, and inside the “sheriff’s pants, on a hanger just out of reach. The contestants have to use ropes to snag the keys and the pants.
This is a wonderful ordeal, as the contestants meet with various degrees of lack of success. Until, finally, number 6 (a former Solitary contestant), locates the final key in the sheriff’s pants, and “escapes” in 56 minutes. Number 3 is second, getting out in 57 minutes. (They spent nearly an hour at this!) Number 7 takes 1 hour 36 minutes. Number 9 makes it out in 1 hour 55 minutes (and calls the producers “peckers” for hiding a key in the sheriff’s pants). Number 2 requires 2 hours 14 minutes to escape, and celebrates deliriously.
Number 6 is once again spared having to participate in the next “treatment.”
But first, just to be mean, VAL makes the contestants create paper airplanes, and throw them into a small target on the other side of the pod. This futile effort drives each of the contestants to frustrated aggravation. Finally, number 6, who is on a roll, gets one. Then another. And another. He wins a reward of peanuts and beer.
Number 3 throws a temper tantrum.
Number 6, enjoying his peanuts, says that he wishes he could share his reward with his “fellow Solitarians.” VAL informs the other contestants, and asks them if they’d like to make a plea to number 6. Number 2 begs him, “Number 6, you are awesome…I bow to you…please share your peanuts with me.”
Because the contestants have no direct contact with one another, VAL relays the message to Number 6: “Number 6, you are awesome…I bow to you…please share your penis with me.”
“Correct that, VAL!”
VAL corrects: “Number 2 does not want your penis. He wants your nuts.”
Oh, VAL, you are delightful.
Next, VAL instructs the contestants to use material provided them to create garments for themselves. Because they’ve been driven insane, the garments they create are demented. Number 6 actually creates a dress, and an elaborate backstory for himself, This dress practices functionality, yet it screams desirability, he says.
What he is wearing looks like a paper muu-muu.
“I’m a modern day, traveling businesswoman,” he continues. “So I go to the meeting during the day. However, I just happen to be single, and I’m looking for the nightlife in the new city I’ve never been. So, I simply…” Here, he tears off the top of his dress, to reveal an even uglier, if smaller paper dress beneath. “I’m ready to go out and hit the town.”
The others prance around their pods like they’ve got DT’s, so proud of their sad creations. VAL “rewards” the contestants with what appears to be a ham sandwich. The contestants excitedly dig in, as if they haven’t been paying attention during the time they’ve been in Solitary.
VAL doesn’t give you a nice big reward like that unless she’s going to do something to try to make you throw it up later.
Yep, the elimination treatment involves forcing the contestants to play a game of putt-putt. For every round they go over par, they have to spin on a chair. Basically, they have to go from one end of their pod to the other in an ever decreasing number of strokes. First penalty is ten spins in 30 seconds.
Number 7 gets penalties on the first two rounds. She’s starting to look a little green.
Number 9 gets a penalty, and she does not look healthy.
Next rounds consist solely of spins. VAL is so mean! Contestants are left stumbling around their pods. Next round, contestants are forced to spin, then hit their balls.
It doesn’t’ take long before the contestants are fighting nausea. Finally, number 9 spits up. “I held out as long as I could,” she says. “I even swallowed puke three times.”
Yuck. But VAL is unsympathetic. “You should have swallowed a fourth time,” she says.
Sadly, my favorite, Liberty the “children’s entertainer” who was once in a polyamorous relationship, has been eliminated. Goodbye, number 9.
But the other contestants aren’t off the hook yet. They’ve still got some spinning, that will continue into next week.
Please, some other cable network needs to pick up this show.
Watch the episode here:
Or go to the Fox Reality Channel website before it, like the channel itself, disappears. You can also watch episodes of past seasons here.
*By the way -- it was pretty much impossible to locate photos of the contestants on this show. Fox Reality is really serious about ceasing operations. They're doing next to nothing to promote this thing. A few contestant photos can be found here.