Putting humiliation on display

Special to The Times

Title notwithstanding, honesty is not the raison d’etre of “The Moment of Truth,” the interrogation-style game show that rewards owning up to bad behavior. Instead it is an assumption, essential to the show’s very foundation. Without honesty, there would be no tragedy, and tragedy is what “Moment of Truth” (Fox, Tuesdays at 8 p.m.) specializes in.

The show returns this week after a 10-episode midseason run that did well in the ratings as a companion to “American Idol.” It also became part of the public imagination -- notably slimy contestants were covered in the media post-show, and the show’s producers offered Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Roger Clemens, a couple of public figures in disgrace, the chance to appear on the show and be vindicated.

So far, they have not accepted, and wisely so -- on “The Moment of Truth” contestants answer a series of increasingly invasive questions on a variety of topics, demonstrating there is potential for embarrassment in many areas of one’s life. The participants are joined on-stage, on a couch slightly apart from the action, by a handful of loved ones, ostensibly there for moral support. (They can collectively veto one of the questions, but that is their only actual power.)

But it turns out that it is those people who are truly the show’s contestants, the ones with something to gain or lose. It is a neat trick how these people -- spouses, parents, siblings, friends -- are casually included in the show, even though the emotional effect of “Moment of Truth” relies upon how intensely they are hurt, how many tears they end up wiping away.


They are, invariably, the only people who are genuinely surprised at the indiscretions of the main participant, who has already answered the questions off-camera, strapped to a polygraph. The naivete of the contestant’s intimates is the show’s gasoline. (It is certainly not pacing -- “Moment” has elevated the pregnant pause to high art.)

After the show’s initial run, it is no longer surprising that someone has cheated on a spouse, has slept with a friend’s wife, has been paid for sex or made myriad other questionable decisions. The Colombian show on which “The Moment of Truth” is based, “Nada mas que la verdad,” was removed from the air after a contestant admitted to hiring a hit man to kill her husband. (The plot failed.) One suspects Fox, though not generally known for boundaries of good taste, will stop short of such a scene.

That means that exploding the lies that keep people together will continue to be this show’s stock in trade, leaving a trail of broken relationships -- romances, families, friendships -- in its wake.

One of the show’s great ironies is that rarely do contestants get eliminated for lying about major gaffes. (They lose all their money if they are found to be lying.) They will not try to fool the polygraph on matters of great importance, because being caught in lies of that scale would be embarrassing. But on something small? Surely the machine can be beaten on a white lie, no? And if not, whom does it hurt?


And so people get eliminated on mundane questions, lying about whether they’ve ever stuffed their shorts, or if they’d pose nude in an adult magazine, or if they think they’re a good person. These are relatively trivial concerns, but that people would risk thousands of dollars to be caught lying about them suggests that vanity is a far greater motivator than honesty, or even greed. (If they are indeed even lying about them -- polygraphs are notoriously unreliable, and the moral gotcha! provided by “false” answers on “Moment of Truth” are puritanically convenient, to say the least.)

Cruelty for consumption

But EVEN putting aside thoughts of it being rigged, these are people who want to be caught, whether they are burdened by the truth or by the people whom the truth would most hurt. What is shocking is that they’re willing to subject those closest to them to gross public humiliation; of all the varieties of televised cruelty, this is perhaps the worst. But why go to therapy to fix your problems when “The Moment of Truth” is quicker and more lucrative?

New episodes will be taping this summer to air in the fall. By this time, those sitting on the couch will likely understand what they’re in for, that their participation will exact a heavy psychic toll on them. Maybe, then, a bit of turnabout will be called for. Instead of agreeing to support their loved one unconditionally, these secondary players should become complicit to the crime and ask for a piece of the pie. One shouldn’t be rewarded for telling the truth, one should be rewarded for suffering it.