Format: Amazon Watch Party
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
The Running Man (1987) - for being a kinda goofy movie about a gameshow where the contestants are framed-up convincts and convicts with crimes like "not teaching the curriculum to school kids", this movie has some uncomfortably prescient stuff baked in as our janus-faced gameshow host plays to his base of folks who *won* in a prior civil conflict, and are joyfully taking part as people are killing each other for our entertainment. Not surprisingly, such a dynamic show has cross-demographic appeal, and it's not just the folks who came out on top economically, it's also the folks on the streets who can't look away as desperate men run for their lives.
Anything we watched this week was likely to be colored by the events in Washington DC. I had put up a poll on twitter just before the first fascist got into the Capitol, and around when Mitch McConnell seemed to have had his heart grow three sizes and was asking his fellow GOPers to certify the election results - and 10 out of 10 voters decided they wanted to watch a fun Arnie film.
The thing is - because I was 12 when I saw this movie in the theater, I've always taken it seriously. I mean, I know it's satire and a ridiculous action movie, but I understood what they were illustrating with the over-the-top theatrics of the "stalkers" and the host who could play all the audiences from sweet old ladies to the "entertainment division of the DOJ". I understood how very @#$%'d up the world was supposed to be in this film - and, before I'd heard the term, got the notion of panem et circenses.*
While no longer revered as he once was in conservative quarters, this was the tail end of teh Reagan-era, a president who was incredibly savvy about what cameras and microphones meant, and wasn't just the President, he did a good job of playing the role of President. And while Reagan was not Killian, the villain of the piece in The Running Man, he knew how to play to his audience. Unlike the outgoing President of today, it is no way hard to imagine Reagan cozying up to some old lady in the audience and ensuring the viewers seeing him have that "common touch".
1987 would have also seen Donald Trump at his early heights and the last time he wasn't just considered a ridiculous asshole by a huge portion of the population. He was playing a high-rolling real estate and gaming mogul with his European model wife and a larger than life figure who was an early "famous for being famous" type in the People magazine-fueled 80's.
The early 90's saw American Gladiators pop up, which was kind of a mix of sporting challenges and game show, and didn't really set off my "is this the Running Man?" alarms. In the 1990's, I stumbled across Japanese game shows which were being rented by American broadcasters for late night deep-cable fillers, and at the time, it was easy to say "wtf, we'd never do that here", but... the fact that in 2021, you can watch the Japanese-derived Wipeout or American Ninja Warrior in syndication literally every day tells you how that worked out.
But there was also Cops, which began in 1989 and finally ceased release in the states in the summer of 2020 during BLM protests - and which is apparently still produced to fulfill international contracts. Live PD was a similar program, which was ostensibly "live" and followed around police officers, aired a few nights per week for hours at a time, and was busily racking up all sorts of civil lawsuits and drawing the eye of civil rights groups and media watchdogs when it was pulled in summer 2020 as well.** My point beings - we aren't shy about broadcasting constructed narratives about righteous lawmen dealing with criminals and selling them as reality.
We are not good at critically evaluating the "reality" presented to us, and tend to trust too much that what we're seeing *has* to be true. Or, alternatively, agreeing that the realities we see in media create too much cognitive dissonance, and we seek media outlets that will *not* create that level of mental discomfort - and call inconveninet reality "fake news". It's a fucking impossible conundrum. Watch at your own risk.
But we've also spent 20 years watching shows increasingly about people being shitty to one another, kicking off with Survivor - which - when it became apparent this was a gameshow and not people actually scraping by to survive on an island, which is plenty of drama in and of itself, became *the* narrative of the US for a few months while Richard Hatch schemed his way to a win, setting the tone for what would be how the game would be played for decades. Shit on your neighbor. No, I've never watched an episode.
This led directly to all networks looking for cheap, lucrative programming wherein people could be shitty to each other, and the resurrection of the then-irrelevant and punchline-y Donald Trump. I'll let you fill in the rest.
Anyway, it's very weird to be a grown-assed adult in an era that looks and behaves disturbingly like the fascist media-saturated near-futures of my childhood. From Dark Knight Returns to RoboCop to The Running Man and a whole lot I'm not mentioning here, this stuff wedged in my head and colored how I saw things advancing. Satire and humor are a powerful tool, but apparently not powerful enough for people not to see the movies as prescriptive rather than cautionary tales.
I won't say I've never watched a reality show - just this week I tuned in to see if Name That Tune would be okay, because it had Jane Krakowski (answer: the show was awful, and we watched 10 minutes before turning it off in horror). Also worth noting - this is what the Fox Network was showing in prime time the same day Captain Buffalo and friends were storming the US Capitol. So. You know. Bread and circuses. and Jane Krakowsi, I guess.
But, yeah, I figure we can keep the Doomsday Clock, but we should also start figuring out how stupid things have gotten by how many years or months we think we are from The Running Man debuting on Fox with absolutely no sense of irony.
*this idea is so well worn that I did something I never do, and fell asleep in The Hunger Games. Like, I get it. Stretching it out over 4 movies doesn't make it better.
**Austin-adjacent township Leander had it's own buckwild story about a guy who won the lottery, used the winnings to run for and win the Sheriff's seat, signed the town up to participate in Live PD and it all ended in lawsuits and scandal with the contract expiring, the guy under indictment, and still trying to run for a second term.