Within minutes of the start of Joe Schmo, Spike TV's new mock-reality show, Matt, the unsuspecting "schmo," was parading before the cameras wearing nothing but spandex black panties, the waistband tightly crimped beneath his pasty rotunda of a belly. He ran his hand rakishly through his hair and moued for the camera. Later, after losing that day's immunity challenge (which was rigged), he said in frustration, "I got to start getting my head in the game!"—fist pounding his temple, and all.
Ostensibly, Matt's picaresque humiliations are the reason to watch Joe Schmo, which is actually an elaborate hoax: Everyone involved is an actor, except for Matt. With the show, Spike TV, the first network for men, hopes to capitalize on the addictive, vicarious pleasure of watching others' pain. Joe Schmo is also supposed to be a testament to the spiritual mortification your average human being is willing to go through to make a little money onscreen.
Instead, Matt has turned the tables on the producers.
Matt thinks he's competing for a $100,000 prize on Lap of Luxury, a Survivor-style show with "vote-offs" and the like. At first, Matt seems goofy, unthreatening, of a friendly frat-boy vintage; he calls himself "the Matt-man." Prior to being selected for Joe Schmo, he had dropped out of law school, in Pittsburgh, to become a pizza-delivery boy and was living with his parents. With his not quite unwrinkled clothes, his slight buck teeth, mussed eyebrows, and protruding nose, he lends himself to caricature. His hazel eyes bug out and his eyebrows frequently rise in puzzlement. He is less a modern-day Jay Gatsby or Horatio Alger than that amiable guy you went to high school with and always liked—what was his name again?
But in this particular televised situation, Matt is made extraordinary by his essential goodness. The other "contestants" on the show are radioactive versions of reality-show types: Molly, the busty, virginal Southern blonde; Ashleigh, the dark-haired rich bitch, with pointy elbows and slinty eyes; Earl, a grizzled ex-Marine with ramrod posture; Gena, a no-nonsense strategizer; and horse-faced Ralph, the "Smarmy Host." In contrast to these characters, and to the "real" actors who play them—who at first giggle like seventh-graders about how they've duped Matt—Matt has a distinct social code and a rigorous idea of how people ought to treat each other. He corners Hutch, the crotch-scratching "Asshole," who's been picking his nose at the lunch table, and benignly warns him that he might want to tone down his antics. In the third episode, he draws Molly aside, visibly nervous, to confess that he voted her off during the first eviction ceremony—not, he says, because he didn't like her but because he doubted anyone else would. (He doesn't want her to upset herself wondering who put her name down.) He walks away when other contestants "find" an incriminating notebook under scheming Gena's bed—though, of course, the whole thing was cooked up for his benefit. Yet he's no sap: At one point he bluntly asks Dr. Pat, a marriage counselor, why she's been divorced three times, after she tries to get Oprah-style cozy with him about the woes of his most recent breakup.
Matt's moral backbone might make for disappointing satiric TV—conventional wisdom holds that good people, like happy families, are boring. But Joe Schmo is riveting precisely because Matt talks so honestly to the camera and to his fellow contestants. He tells them everything. In a one-on-one interview after the black panty episode, he confides, "I was worrying about size down there" then blushes and confesses, "I did play with it to get it up." This is more than you want to know—but it's also a kind of novelistic character detail rarely found on reality TV. And he registers everything, zeroing in on each slip in a character's story, deftly nailing Ashleigh's capricious selfishness and distancing himself from it. You begin to root for him to overcome the temptations of everyday compromise; you want him not to take the easy way out, or to connive, or to indulge in histrionics. His openness deflects humiliation. You want it to stay that way.
And so over the last few episodes—the fifth aired on Tuesday—something of a weird conversion narrative has taken place among the actors. Conniving and self-involved at the start (they're not exactly tomorrow's stars), they are growing genuinely attached to—and protective of—Matt. At the end of the third episode, the contestants got in the hot tub, where each had to say something positive about his or her comrades. It was dark, and blue shadowy light from the water flickered over their faces. They found polite enough things to say about one another. But when they got to Matt it was as if they'd come face-to-face with a child messiah—someone unknowing and awesome. One by one, they struggled to tell Matt how good he was. ("I don't think you have any idea of how you present yourself. It's amazing. We're all blown away by who you are.") Ashleigh dropped entirely out of character (so much so that the show's producers later reprimanded her) and, tongue-tied, struggled for words that were nowhere to be found: "I think that you're a very special person. I think that there's … something special. I don't know what. I mean, I think there's something special."
In fact, Matt is so close to perfect—and, with his frank talk about how hot Ashleigh looks in her bikini, so perfect for Spike TV's male audience—that you begin to wonder if the show might be faking us out in another way. Maybe Matt is an actor too, and we're the Joes who "don't know," as the show's motto puts it. (If this is the case, I'd wager that his fellow contestants don't know either.) Whatever the case, without him, the slightness of the show's premise would grow wearying. Plenty of scenes aren't edited crisply enough. And even by parody's terms it indulges in crude stereotypes: The "gay guy" is weepy and histrionic; the women, who are much more attractive than the men, bounce around in bikinis, even when the weather is cloudy (which is more often than not).
If Matt is an everyday guy, Joe Schmo's Truman Show-esque manipulations implicate everyone in a more complicated game. The show's tagline is "The reality show that's not real," but of course, as the show's producers find out, their lab-experiment has unforeseen consequences. There are real feelings, real injuries. When Earl, the ex-Marine (and Matt's roommate), is voted off in the fourth episode, Matt breaks down on the stairs in tears, so overcome that he can't make it up to his bedroom. "No amount of money is worth this," he says. "I should have thought it through before I came here." It's heartbreaking to watch; the actors are visibly shaken. One producer whispers, "We've got to f***ing stop this." Later, in a sumo-wrestling game, Matt rams Dr. Pat with pent-up frustration (she's sleeping with the crass Hutch, he thinks, and the sheer wrongness of it unsettles him) and pile-drives her into the ground. She is sent to the hospital with a real neck injury. Matt looks on, his eyes dulled.
What will happen when Matt learns he's been hoodwinked this whole time? Like Schrödinger's Cat, it turns out there's no observing a human on television without changing him. The Dr. Pat episode reveals just how deeply our understanding of other people's lives affects our sense of ourselves, even (or especially) when we have a strong sense of self. Yet he's acquitted himself well; he needn't fear looking back at his adventures on the Lap of Luxury, despite the show's intention to humiliate him. In this sense, unknowingly, he's outwitted the show and revealed something curious: On another kind of reality show, the distance between him and those around him might not have been so obvious. The show's real sting lies in realizing that it's easier to like someone who needs protection, even as it's easier to laugh at him.