Where is Shirley Jackson when you need her? She wrote "The Lottery," she understood the small, dark, needful thing twisting within the residents of the most idyllic towns, she should have to review "There Goes the Neighborhood."
In the new CBS reality competition, eight families living next to each other in an Atlanta suburb agree to engage in an "experiment." Their row of (very nice) houses is walled off from the rest of the world, their electricity cut and they are pitted against each other for a $250,000 prize. Over seven episodes, the families will engage in various competitions; the winning family gains not only immunity for the week but also the responsibility of "nominating" two families to be removed. The remaining families then vote on which family goes.
They get down to business in Episode 1, which ends just after the first winning family nominates two of their neighbors for elimination. It is just as upsetting to watch as you would imagine, with sudden tears and amiable American faces frozen mid-betrayal.
The good news is no one gets stoned to death as they do in "The Lottery," but "There Goes the Neighborhood" seems just as brutal as Jackson's dark mirror of a small town, where the murderous ritual at least worked by chance. Yes, we are used to watching people get voted off islands and out of houses, seeing women weep as the rose passes them by, but those people were all strangers to each other, with nothing more at risk than a long-odds prize.
Here, the contestants claim to be longtime, close friends. (If this is true, then how the creators located eight families who live door-to-door, are friends and agreed to do this is worth a show in itself.) In a perfect world, the families would have secretly agreed that no matter who won, it would be divided eight ways, and maybe they did but probably not. Cash and television tend to make cowards of us all.
At a time when money is tight and the vanishing American community perpetually bemoaned, CBS looks more than a little calculating in this endeavor. Host Matt Rogers dresses it up as a chance for families, stripped of television, e-mail and cellphones, to bond, but we all know that isn't the point. We don't tune into these shows to see people bond. We tune in, as Jackson knew long before most people had television, for the screaming, the thrown tableware, the bleeped out expletives from the previously unflappable contestant.
After you look at "There Goes The Neighborhood," it's hard to look away. It is such an utterly cynical experiment, troublesome on so many levels (there are children involved, watching adults cry because their friends have "banished" them) and no matter how often people say "it's just a game," even without a big chunk of change on the line, family competitions are rarely bloodless.
How much better, then, to tune into "The Colony," which is entering its third week on Discovery Channel on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. (Discovery Channel, don't you feel better about yourself already?) Here the concept is even more "experimental" -- a group of people pretending to be survivors of a worldwide catastrophe are also cut off from the world, hunkering down in an L.A. warehouse and attempting to rebuild something of a society with the scraps they scavenge.
Watching "The Colony," you risk nothing, which may explain why the experience is surprisingly unengaging. While it is comforting to know that a water filtration system can be constructed from sand and charcoal you might have lying around, or that there are still men who can build a generator from lawn mower parts and an old ceiling fan, it's hard to get emotionally attached to the colony members. (I kept wondering why they didn't just hike up the river a few miles and raid the Trader Joe's in Los Feliz.) No one seems particularly upset that the rest of the world has been carried away by disease or whatever, no one seems to feel like they are in peril from within or without, and the "marauders" in their "Mad Max" costumes are just embarrassing.
Watching "The Colony" and "There Goes the Neighborhood," it's hard not to long for the scripted drama, for the singular ability of the writer to not only illuminate the hard truths and hidden fractures of human nature but also to somehow make them seem more meaningful than perhaps they are.
'There Goes the Neighborhood'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: Not rated