Truth or dare

TV steals from everything. Even the new reality show The Moment of Truth has a basis in decades old literature.

TV steals from everything. Even the new reality show The Moment of Truth has a basis in decades old literature.

In 1964, Donald Barthelme published a story named A Shower of Gold. In it, a starving artist, Peterson, applies to appear on a television show named Who Am I in order to procure beer and food. The program is a game show involving contestants who are asked highly personal and direct questions while hooked to a polygraph machine.

The story, along with Barthelme’s others, is a highly inventive, comically ingenious tale. Looking back now, it was also a sort of literary prophecy, akin to Orwell’s 1984. Because premiering this season on Fox is a reality show based on that very concept, The Moment of Truth, but mixed with the flair and monetary stepping stones of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

“Existence is problematic for you. It estranges you from those possibilities for authentic selfhood that inhere in the present century.”

–From A Shower of Gold

Barthelme didn’t get everything totally right, but the basics for the current Fox show are in his story. The show in the book and the show on Fox both have a surreal quality to them.

The Moment of Truth has the contestants hooked to a polygraph before the show and asked many personal questions. They then appear before an audience and cameras to answer the same questions without knowing the original polygraph results.

For each question they answer correctly, they get money–a standard format. Contestants are asked about cheating on their spouses with their spouse in the room. They are asked whether they care about starving kids in Africa. If they answer all this truthfully, they get $500,000.

In the story, the contestants are given $200 before the show, and three of them appear in front of the camera together, all of them hooked to polygraphs on live TV, while the host asks them equally personal and damaging questions.

Barthelme’s show, Who Am I, tries to answer the question: Who are these people? In The Moment of Truth, though, we already know who these people are. They’re a grotesque mash-up of Jerry Springer guests and those types who want to guess the cost of vacuum cleaners on The Price Is Right.

They are the people willing to sell themselves for a little bit of money, to alienate their family and friends. Think of the authors Augusten Burroughs or James Frey but with someone else (a producer, a talk show host) forging the false narrative instead. The Moment of Truth tries to find, well, a moment of truth. But like reality TV itself, it is a flawed search for meaning.

Polygraph perception

Much like the fictional world created in A Shower of Gold, popular culture has also forged a myth of the polygraph’s accuracy. In Europe, Canada and Israel, the polygraph is considered inadmissible in court. In 1998 a Supreme Court case, United States v. Scheffer, questioned the validity of lie detectors, stating, “Unlike other expert witnesses who testify about factual matters outside the jurors’ knowledge, such as the analysis of fingerprints, ballistics, or DNA found at a crime scene, a polygraph expert can supply the jury only with another opinion….”

People’s lives are ruined based on an opinion. And if we’re to take The Wire as anything less than truthful, a polygraph is often used to coerce and mislead criminal suspects into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.

Some might say Barthelme wasn’t all that prophetic. In 1948 there was the first reality show, Candid Camera. Then in the 1950s, game shows such as Beat the Clock became popular. Even so, Barthelme foresaw the culmination of reality TV we are currently seeing today. Because that’s what The Moment of Truth is–a melodramatic, exhibitionist’s dream-show that turns people’s worst problems and their darkest secrets into a game. Reality TV at its best.

And it does this based not on a standard of truth, but on a lie. If polygraphs aren’t true, then The Moment of Truth exposes nothing except that people will do anything for a money or 15 minutes of fame.

A Shower of Gold articulates the biggest lie. After hearing the other contestant’s interrogations, Peterson decides that the world is absurd, and instead of subjecting himself to further questions, he goes on a rant to reflect his newfound reality.

He sums up the contestants of the reality show thusly: “How can you be alienated without first having been connected?”

The Moment of Truth premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox.