In a recent statement, the Spike channel called Chase Rogan “the true hero” of “The Joe Schmo Show.”
Chase, a 28-year-old agronomist with a menschy personality, is the titular schmo in the returning TV series, which drops an unsuspecting person into a completely fake reality competition. Thinking he’s competing to be a bounty hunter and win $100,000 on a series called “The Full Bounty,” Chase spends weeks living and performing challenges among a cast of actors all pretending to be reality TV types. Spike is calling him the true hero of the show, after treating him like a true dupe for the duration of the shoot.
Good lord, I hate what I’m about to say. It will make me sound like a too-serious TV critic unwilling to play along with the reality TV games we now generally take for granted. Maybe I am, I don’t know. But I just couldn’t enjoy “The Joe Schmo Show,” which returns after a nine-year absence on Tuesday night at 10, watching Chase get fooled over and over again. It’s one thing to see someone get tricked for the duration of a sketch on “Candid Camera,” “Punk’d,” or “I Get That a Lot”; it’s another to watch a sweetly gullible man get hoaxed at length, as the focus of an entire 10-episode series. For me, the deception crossed the line from lighthearted prank into something less worthy of passive acceptance. I couldn’t relax and go along with it.
I mean, “The Truman Show” wasn’t a comedy, right?
I can laugh and groan at many of the fame seekers who choose to look ludicrous on the likes of “The Real Housewives” or “Bachelor” series. That’s the point of most reality TV at this moment in the development of the genre; we are meant to enjoy the idiocy that people knowingly decide to reveal in order to get their 15 minutes on the stage. Some 20 years since the start of “The Real World,” most adults understand that if we agree to be on reality TV, we are going to be misrepresented and edited into a character — the villain, jock, fool, etc. And Chase on “Joe Schmo” did agree to be on a reality show, one that — as it purported to make him a bounty hunter — is daft as any of them.
But still, doesn’t there need to be a basic agreement on what type of embarrassment a reality player is signing up for — a sort of honor among thieves? Chase is in fact on a scripted show — there is a “teleplay by” credit on “Joe Schmo” — and he is not actually competing for anything. He’s just a guy who is being used for entertainment purposes quite different from what he’d thought. Spike may call him a hero, but the words under the definitions of “schmo” in various dictionaries — stupid, obnoxious, dull — are far from heroic.
I’m betting Chase is fine and, assuming he got a $100,000 prize, happy to keep quiet if he isn’t. He seems like the kind of childlike guy willing to go with the flow — at one point, talking about why he wants to be a bounty hunter, he says, “It as close to a superhero as you can get.” But Matt Kennedy Gould, who was the schmo in the first season of “The Joe Schmo Show” in 2003, said this to Entertainment Weekly in 2008: “If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t do the show at all. Honestly, the show really made me feel dumb.” His embarrassment prevented him from pursuing a career in entertainment, he said, and it played a role in his abuse of drugs and alcohol, until he got his life together.
OK, that’s off my chest. I know “The Joe Schmo Show” is a comedy, and in some circles the first season is legendary, but these were the thoughts and feelings that got in the way for me. What I do like about the series, which had a second season in 2004, is the idea of scripting a reality show in order to make fun of reality archetypes. It’s a little redundant at this point to parody reality TV when the genre is essentially self-parodic. But still the characters that surround Chase have humorous moments, notably the deaf Karlee (Jo Newman) and Allison (Nikki McKenzie), who is labeled as “The Overachieving Asian.” Also onhand: Lorenzo Lamas, who plays himself, a desperate has-been trying to market his “casual pouch” underwear.
If you’ve watched reality TV, you will recognize the conventions that “Joe Schmo” is mocking, including the shots of stuffed animals in the mansion whenever it returns from a commercial. Just don’t think about the poor schmo at the center of it all, unaware that he’s only a pawn in their game.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew