Though the novel plainly isn’t this notorious television producer’s strong suit, there’s some guilty pleasure in reading about how the man responsible for The Gong Show and The Newlywed Game takes his revenge on reality TV.
It’s the year 2011, and trash TV has gotten a whole lot trashier. There are new limits—or perhaps no limits. Barris (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, 1984, etc.) jumpstarts his narrative with an encounter on the Manhattan streets between a very (or at least formerly) famous television producer and an 82-year-old cripple who makes a grab for him. The producer is never named, though details invite the reader initially to equate his experiences and mindset with those of Barris. In fact, the cripple has a name: Chuck Barris. He’s impoverished and all but deaf, plainly a pest to the producer, who does his best to shake him off, but the geezer has an idea for what will be his TV comeback. He even shot a pilot for it, back in his heyday, when standards weren’t nearly as liberal. Eventually, he prevails upon the producer to visit the cripple’s squalor and view the tape of a show titled The Death Game. Instead of merely humiliating contestants, a tactic Barris had pioneered, the new show offers the ultimate challenge to those who make it to the hot seat. Answer the final question correctly, and you win 100 million bucks. Answer incorrectly, and you’re executed. Interspersed with the program’s progression are the stories of those who might become contestants. Some are heartsick, some are head-sick and many have seen their lives take surprising detours. Which characters are either sick enough of life or desperate enough for cash—or both—to risk everything? It’s not a pretty question, nor a pretty answer.
As with Barris’s shows, readers might find themselves laughing despite their better instincts.