Why 'Fear Factor' was dredged up again

Live scorpions crawl on the head of a visitor to the "Fear Factor Live" competition at Universal Studios in 2005.

Story highlights

  • David Bianculli: NBC's "Fear Factor" redux is even more disgusting
  • It's not a new wave of gross-out shows, Bianculli says; it's a desperate NBC
  • Network is relaunching known entity because it's easier to promote, he says
  • Bianculli's advice: "Fear Factor" shouldn't be viewed by anyone, anytime
Ten years ago, NBC, eager to come up with its own version of the unexpected CBS reality hit, the competition series "Survivor," adapted a Dutch series called "Now or Neverland" and proudly presented it -- with pro-wrestling-style fanfare -- as its newest series: "Fear Factor." Monday night, NBC revived "Fear Factor" in a version best described as "new and unimproved."
The show, which has contestants do disgusting things, is alarmingly gross, no question. But should we worry that its return marks a new and deeper descent into depravity for American TV-watchers? A jump-off into a new binge of revolting reality-show programming?
Never fear. There are other factors at play.
For one thing, the show's earlier version had raised the bar very high for disgusting. We've already gone there.
More important, it's NBC. Only at NBC, where audience levels are well below every broadcast network, save Univision and the CW, would it be considered progress to reach back to a decade-old TV series -- and a horrible one, at that. Then again, NBC is the network that in its most recent attempts to revive old TV series, looked over the entire history of broadcast television and opted to present new versions of ... "The Bionic Woman" and "Knight Rider."
"Fear Factor" is a known entity -- not a good one, but a known one -- and that makes it easier to promote than a series created from scratch. And "Fear Factor," like any reality competition show, is the type of program that can be plugged into any airtime hole, in any order, and it'll get more viewers than whatever it's replacing. For many, even seeing someone smothering on scorpions or immersed in blood (as in its premiere Monday night) beats watching "The Playboy Club."
It didn't have to be, of course. There were other new NBC shows from 2001 that could have been brought back instead. "The Weakest Link," a quiz show based on another series from abroad, premiered that year. So did "Kristin," a sitcom starring Kristin Chenoweth, which I'll bet not even she remembers clearly. And "Emeril"-- the sitcom, not the cooking show. So to be fair, NBC's current management doesn't exactly have a lock on developing bad TV.
But each of those bottom-of-the-barrel NBC shows from a decade ago -- and sadly, as a TV critic, I saw and recall them all -- was better than "Fear Factor." Then and now. I'd say that "Fear Factor," as a programming strategy for the fourth-ranked broadcast network, has an air of desperation. Except that the air is a lot more foul than that. It smells, in fact, a lot like cow's blood.
In Monday's two-hour 2011 revival premiere, returning host Joe Rogan (how proud he must be, to land that job twice) explained to the four pairs of contestants that one of their tasks was to climb inside a tank filled with "3,000 gallons of cow's blood," submerge themselves to locate cow's hearts lying on the bottom of the tank and place them in the mouth of their partners, whose job was to spit them into smaller containers next to the giant tank.
Cow's blood. Cow's hearts. Udderly revolting.
There were other tasks, too, such as chewing and eating live scorpions, which made some of the contestants gag. At home, I wasn't far behind.
The stunts on "Fear Factor," Rogan said helpfully at the start of each hour, were designed and supervised by trained professionals. "They should not be attempted," he added, "by anyone, anywhere, anytime." If you're watching "Fear Factor" to begin with, you just might need that warning. (And if you need it, you probably aren't bright enough to heed it.) I'm a TV-viewing professional. Here's my warning: " 'Fear Factor' should not be viewed by anyone, anywhere, anytime."
The real shame of it is, NBC has some really good programming coming up early next year, starting with the musical drama "Smash" and the psychological thriller "Awake." Preceding those with "Fear Factor" not only sends the wrong message, it gathers the wrong audience. If NBC wants stupid, "Fear Factor" is the perfect smelly bait.
It's also, amazingly, the modern equivalent of "The Magic Christian," the 1969 Terry Southern parody film starring Peter Sellers as Guy Grand, a wealthy man who spent a fortune proving that people would do anything for money. In that film's climax, Guy filled a giant outdoor vat with animal waste -- blood, urine, feces -- and floated money on top of it, daring people to wade in and grab the cash. And they did, to the tune of Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air."
All these years later, "Fear Factor" and NBC have made that ridiculous image come true: people wading in animal waste in exchange for cash.
How offal.