On the TV show “Stars Earn Stripes”

I did something new yesterday.  I watched almost all of an episode of a “reality TV” show.  I’ve really never watched any in the past–save for a few minutes of a “Wipeout” course that looked kind of neat–because “reality TV” shows strike me as stupid, which is a little unfair to think given that I’ve never seen one, but I have seen commercials for them during football games and they don’t look very interesting.

But it transpired I had some time to waste, and there was nothing on PBS that I hadn’t seen, and so I flipped over to the show “Stars Earn Stripes” on NBC.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a show in which various celebrities run missions “based on” military training exercises.  The only celebrity on it who I had heard of before was Sarah Palin’s husband, so I’m not sure they’re actually “stars”.

I think the words “based on” are highly significant here.  I have never served in the military, but I am highly skeptical of whether they would have a training exercise like the one on last night’s episode, where the contestants had to shoot (with a pistol) at stationary, dinner-plate sized targets on the ground from a parked humvee. Seems pointless, unless they are expecting to fight a ground war against an army of dinner plates. If any veterans read this and have seen the show, I’d love to hear from them about it.

Their was also some sort of “elimination round” between two of the contestants.  It seemed more realistic, in that it was some kind of competition to clear a confined area of targets.  It looked like shows I’ve seen on S.W.A.T. training where they practice fighting through a building that has been taken over by criminals.

A lot of people, including Nobel Peace Prize Winners, say the show glorifies war.  I guess it does, but it mostly glorifies training for war, which may or may not be the same thing.  It’s not as egregious about it as, for example, the super-popular Call of Duty games or many popular action movies,  but at the same time it definitely plays like a military recruiting commercial, especially with the awkward presence of General Wesley Clark as co-host.

Is that bad?  I don’t know; the military has been trying to figure out ways of recruiting more people through P.R. stunts ever since the draft ended.  Maybe it was because of my expectations, but it struck me as no different than those ads you see during football games for the various branches of the service.  And those, I feel, are about as likely to succeed as other commercials.

It’s the Act of Valor issue all over again: sure, it’s recruiting film, but that still doesn’t answer whether it’s a bad thing or a good thing.  Personally, I think it’s kind of weird to show the celebrities doing stuff “based on” military training.  Seeing them try to get through an exact re-creation of Army Ranger training would probably be more exciting viewing, but then, I don’t think many celebrities would sign on for that.  And I doubt many viewers would say “looks like fun.”

Like I said, I haven’t seen much reality TV, but I get the impression the big draw is seeing the emotional disputes and inter-personal drama between the contestants.  There was none of that here.  I’m guessing that NBC wanted an emotionally stable cast, since they are giving them access to real weapons and live ammunition.  (Shades of “You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”)  It makes practical and ethical sense, but probably makes for worse TV.

Lastly, I did feel a little weird watching the show.  Maybe I am cynical but it–along with most reality shows and sporting events–remind me a little too much of the Ancient Roman Gladiator Games.  While it’s obviously much safer for the contestants, there’s still something a bit unsettling about it as a viewer.

“Pollice Verso” by Jean-Léon Gérôme. 1872 artist’s conception of gladiatorial games.

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