I don't want to bum you guys out, but that claustrophobic cyberpunk nightmare dystopia that we were always hurtling towards? A little bit Running Man, a little bit Snow Crash? Because of our phones? It's now. We're in it. So thanks a lot, ABC's hottest new singing competition, Rising Star.
Rising Star has aspiring singers stand in front of a gigantic wall of monitors and belt their little songs while America (you) votes on their special app in real time. When you vote, your face shows up right there on the goddamn wall, your face, on the tee vee, imagine that! If enough you's vote yes, contestants literally advance as the wall rises up from the ground like it's revealing the most formidable Gundam ever constructed, but the Gundam is your career and you are the pilot, a master of your own fate, beloved in the eyes of all. As an exasperated-sounding Ludacris and a getting-paid sounding Josh Groban insist, this is exactly what we want.
Only we know from the last three decades of entertainment that nearly all these hopeful kids will end up in re-educational stasis in the Underplex, having accidentally signed over their memories and futures to the Pisces Corporation. After all, Rising Star fits the bill for full-on dystopian entertainment: isolated contestants facing off against gargantuan screens, a way-too-blunt-to-be-just-metaphorical emphasis on confinement and escape, authority figures who insist they aren't authority figures (Kesha's not a judge, she's an "expert"), and instant gratification. Like we watch singing competitions for anything beyond than the briefest moments of tension and uncertainty. That was without a doubt what, Simon?! I'm gouging my eyes out here!
Back in '87, Schwarzenegger schlock-heap The Running Man gave us instant dystopian TV classic Climbing For Dollars, where contestants grip fat stacks in their mouth as they scramble up a rope away from ravenous dogs. It was fucking awesome. Who wouldn't hate-watch that? "I know it's inflaming all my craven, hateful instincts, but like, then he falls off the rope! Ha ha!"
The undeniable Citizen Kane of genre, though, is Ow My Balls! from Mike Judge's time capsule of aughts extrapolation, Idiocracy. For all these shows, you only ever really get ten seconds of screen time to see just how fucked up this future is, but it's weirdly appropriate, since today, pullable gratifying clips are what it's all about. And really, you only need about six frames of OMB! to get it.
That's not to overlook the crucial contributions of Bixby Snyder in Robocop, whose show It's Not My Problem! features titcake, gorgeous broads, and the totally inane, totally immortal, apparently totally hilarious catchphrase, "I'd buy that for a dollar!" We all would, Bix.
Dystopian entertainment always revolves around feeding us exactly what we think we want, usually some cocktail of ultraviolence, sex, degradation, and cheap emotional thrills. Like cilantro-infused simple syrup or wedge heels on everything, though, there's a new ubiquitous ingredient now: you(/us/America)! That's Rising Star's hook, and it's also the hook of the dystopian TV show it so terrifyingly resembles, Hot Shot, from Black Mirror, the best/only British sci-fi anthology show you're probably not watching. The first season episode "Fifteen Million Merits" posits a society where all ablebodied folks spend all day riding stationary bikes to generate power, most of which ends up going to the screens they have basically no choice but to stare at 90% of the time. The one clear way out of the jumpsuited monotony of it all is Hot Shot, a talent competition where, guess what, you perform in front of a wall of monitors displaying viewers and their real-time reactions for the chance of becoming a pop sensation and experiencing real actual sunlight.
The nightmare of "Fifteen Million Merits" is that, soft spoiler, there's no way out. Every part of that world weaves together like a finger trap: the cyclers cycle endlessly, powering the lights and the cameras for the show that keeps them hopefully cycling towards their chance to get out of it all, but even attempts to transcend or disrupt that cycle of stasis get seamlessly reintegrated back into it. That's the fantasy that Rising Star's selling, isn't it? That you could sing so good the walls themselves lift up to let you escape the panopticon prison you spend every waking hour within? Just fantasize: you could be the next Justin Guarini!
Minor episode spoilers and cold hard truths below:
But there's no escape, baby, because your way out really just keeps you on another week. And Josh Groban's watching. Josh Groban's always watching.