There is nothing duller than whining on about the death of civilization every time some astoundingly crass program squirts out of the television industry and into your living room. To write words to this effect is hyperbolic and hackneyed; as a matter of general principle, such sophomoric talk has no place in a serious discussion of popular culture. But then mindless July rolls around, with its languor and loose inhibitions and sun-struck lunacy, and in the light of summer television, civilization does not seem to have a pulse. It looks quite dead indeed. Smells dead, too—the corpse stinking like the street gutter outside a Chinatown fish market after a nine-day heat wave.
Each network adds its own signature undertones to this aroma, and at NBC, you get your first extended whiff of what Ben Silverman's fun factory will be spewing. Other TV execs give the populace circuses in the metaphorical sense of Juvenal's lines about panem et circenses, but Silverman, the competitive type, has shown them up. A year into his tenure as the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment—where, perhaps partly because of the writers' strike, American Gladiators is the only success he can take credit for—Silverman is giving the populace actual circuses. With celebrities. Which is all there is to know about the competition show Celebrity Circus (Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET). Contestants include Stacey Dash, who played Dionne in Clueless; Christopher Knight, who played Peter on The Brady Bunch; and Rachel Hunter, the model who played house with Rod Stewart for eight years. The show feels baroque and flashily mundane at once. The tight-rope acts and aerial tricks, the fetish-freak costumes and drag-show makeup, the presence of Jackass' Wee Man—all of these combine to give it the feel of a Cirque de Soleil performance reconceived for the second-fanciest mall in your town.
If this sounds too exotic for your taste, then it's time for Celebrity Family Feud (NBC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET). Al Roker—once merely a corpulent weatherman, now a tubby all-purpose personality—hosts, losing none of his meager dignity in the process. The climax of last night's show saw the Pastores (the actual family of character actor Vincent Pastore, Big Pussy on The Sopranos) matched off against the Giffords. "You already know my husband, Frank," said Kathie Lee to Al, "and our son Cody. ..."
Al asked them to name something you'd hate to see fall on the floor during an operation. Hmmm ... Well, survey says there's the scalpel (41), body parts (32), the patient (8), and also "the doctor himself," (12) as Cody put it. Then what? The Pastores had an idea: "Blood." "Blood!" "Blood." "BLOOD." Al to the audience: "There will be blood!" Yes, that will pass for wit on a show where the Giffords got to that last round by defeating Dog the Bounty Hunter and his bitch and their brood. In the other semifinal, the Pastores sneaked past the cast of E!'s The Girls Next Door—Hugh Hefner's harem, in other words. "No pouting," Roker vainly instructed the bimbos when they lost. "No pouting."
Celebrity Family Feud is up against ABC's Wipeout (8 p.m. ET), which is like American Gladiators, except totally jaded where the NBC show is blindly jingoistic. In the course of attempting masochistic physical challenges, its contestants fall down very often, and we watch these plunges in sadistic slow-motion replay, with the whole Telestrator treatment and everything. The sideline reporter makes the cutest little wince whenever a contestant falls off "the Dreadmill" and into a pit of foam and flour. Meanwhile, back in front of a cheap green screen, the hosts snark nonstop about the contestants' athleticism and sweat stains and haircuts and, good post-postmodern wiseasses that they are, also about the slo-mo replays. Wipeout dresses up the usual network idiocy with cable-style snark (think Best Week Ever) and an exuberant lack of decency that's pure Internet—a TMZ-esque disregard for mercy, an anonymous blog commentor's sense of self-restraint. "It's a summer show," as one host said, "but it's definitely more interested in the fall."
Wipeout leads into I Survived a Japanese Game Show!, which is self-evidently awesome in its depiction of two teams of Americans doing goofy stuff in a Tokyo TV studio. Last night, I Survived a Japanese Game Show! in turn led into the special-edition newsmagazine Primetime: The Outsiders, a program that exists to prove that ABC News is winning this season's hot race to the bottom of the barrel. In teasing a segment about an obese invalid, they employed slo-mo so that we could really appreciate the way the man jiggled around. The main story was a triumphantly vacuous exploration of the subculture of people who keep monkeys at home. Not as pets, mind you, but in lieu of children—perpetual 2-year-olds with tails, "monkids." So, the segment had monkeys in dresses and on playground swing sets, where they bit children. Somehow, they got some hot chicks on motorcycles into the story, too. Naturally, the primary subject had her little capuchin daughter on her shoulder throughout the interview. The reporter was David Muir. His shirt and trouser had a sleazy sheen to them, as if he'd stepped out of a Tom Ford ad. His best question about that particular monkey was, "What would she do with this lollipop?" "She" being the monkey, of course, and Muir's producers knowing that—on summer nights from now until the end of days—it's better to show than to tell.