Jack Tame: US reality show full of tacky hypocrisy

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Dean Cain is not a hero but he played one on TV. Photo / AP
Dean Cain is not a hero but he played one on TV. Photo / AP

Superman looked at the camera, rugged and symmetrically handsome, if a little wobblier-jowled than when his TV show was on air.

"This is not a joke," he said earnestly. "I know there's a chance I could die."

You couldn't help but sigh at the patronising ridiculousness of it all. In the first night of primetime entertainment after its oft-maligned Olympics coverage, US television network NBC reaped widespread criticism of its new show, Stars Earn Stripes.

This is a reality competition in which machine-gun-toting quasi-celebrities compete in war-themed obstacle courses to raise money for military charities. The cast includes former Superman actor Dean Cain, action stars, a boy band singer, WWE "wrestler" Eva Torres and the husband of former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. In an extraordinary change of direction from an otherwise illustrious career, it is hosted by the former supreme commander of Nato.

And, as NBC claims, the entire point is to honour the sacrifices and work of America's military personnel.

For a moment, let's give it a New Zealand perspective. Imagine a reality TV show hosted by Sir Jerry Mateparae, starring Bronagh Key and Jaime Ridge in tactical war-themed contests. In the first episode, Willy Apiata would coach the Prime Minister's wife as she belly-crawled through a barbed-wire-covered bog before she wrenched her body from the mud to destroy a garden shed with a grenade launcher. Ridge would fire off a few machine-gun rounds, complain about mud under her nails and help break down a door with an axe, before sobbing on camera.

We would be told it was all in the name of respecting our troops.

In an open letter to NBC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jose Ramos-Horta, and seven other Nobel Peace laureates said the programme "pays homage to no one anywhere. It continues and expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war".

I'm not sure exactly what gave the laureates that impression. Perhaps it came just a few minutes in, when a soldier-cum-trainer boasted on camera of his wartime sniping tally. "I've got a confirmed kill count of 160 people."

Perhaps it was retired boxer Laila Ali, when she cheerily asked her trainer, "So, have you killed people?"

Or perhaps it was the performance of Todd Palin, the Alaskan fisherman and hockey mum's husband nicknamed "Rambo" by the other celebrities. "Next time I go to war, I want Todd Palin on my side," exclaimed one of the military trainers.

But it wasn't the inclusion of celebrities or competition or even Hollywood effects that so blatantly sanitised war, but the noticeable exclusion of sobering facts.

There were only vague mentions of the almost 8000 coalition troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was no mention of the more than 100,000 civilians killed in the same wars. There was no mention of veteran unemployment rates, veteran homelessness rates, or the astounding mental illness rates and suicide epidemic crippling the US armed services.

Entertainment it may be, but to suggest Stars Earn Stripes honours soldiers is as far from reality as reality TV possibly could be.

- Herald on Sunday

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