Mother Jones on TV's Solitary

As part of the "Torture Hits Home" package in the new issue of Mother Jones, Michael Mechanic has written a terrific story about the Fox reality TV show Solitary. The show features contestants who undergo brutal psychological and physical "treatments" with a $50,000 prize as the carrot on the stick. Reminds me of Videodrome. From Mother Jones:

 News Feature 2008 03 Voluntary-Confinement-Lead-Image-340X227The brainchild of producers Andrew Golder and Lincoln Hiatt, Solitary places nine men and women in cramped pods for up to 12 days with no human contact. "Guests," their names reduced to numbers, must instead submit to Val–a female spin on Hal, the sentient computer from the sci-fi classic 2001–who serves as host, enabler, and oppressor. (Hiatt calls her "a benevolent bitch.")

In season one, after softening up her charges, Val delivers the first treatment. Players are allowed to sleep but are awakened repeatedly by earsplitting alarms; to stop the onslaught, they must regurgitate a numeric code that grows more complex with each cycle. After hours of this, Number 4, a tough 30-year-old Romanian immigrant, mutters, "This is a psychotic-experiment show, not a reality show."

It gets worse–or better, depending on your perspective. Bleary-eyed contestants must scrutinize a video montage of horrors to solve an equation. They complete hundreds of sickening revolutions on a sit-and-spin apparatus. They lie for hours on a bed of wooden pegs; a Buddhist martial arts instructor deems the pain "intolerable." Players can quit anytime by hitting a big red button mounted in their pods, but to do so means going home with only the phone number of a consulting psychologist. The last person standing leaves with $50,000…

Their initial Solitary concept… was likely among the darkest ideas ever pitched to a TV executive. They proposed burying 10 cells in a desolate location such as the Salton Sea with nothing visible from the surface but a row of ventilation shafts. "From the sky," Hiatt marvels, "the thing would look like a bizarre alien graveyard." Contestants would be allowed sleep and food but would remain (hidden cameras aside) in utter isolation: no treatments, no Val, no nothing. "When they want to leave, they walk out into the light, and the last person to walk out into the light wins," Golder explains. (He and Hiatt habitually point out that contestants who participate in Solitary do so of their own free will.) "It was a very draconian social experiment."