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Solitary Confinement -- The Hottest Show on Fox Reality
Part I of an exclusive Interview with producer Lincoln Hiatt
By Josh Gordon
March 23, 2009
Flipping through the channels often renders one’s brain into a gelatinous oozy substance, perfect for the aliens that are taking us over via Hulu. On one such surf-fest I happened across my least favorite channel, the Fox Reality channel. I hate reality shows. I do, I hate ‘em. Soul sucking succubi that bring out the worst in human nature, I don’t really enjoy watching people do each other in through conniving, backstabbing, lying, cheating and stealing. Sounds too much like the Bush administration.
One reality show I enjoyed was Stan Lee’s “Who Wants to Be a Superhero”. This was a show that rewarded the goodness in human nature and tried to bring out the best in people. So what if it had the budget of Romper Room, it made me feel all warm and glitzy inside and it featured the nicest guy in show business, Stan “the man” Lee.
So as I was channel surfing I crashed right itno Fox Reality Channel where something caught my eye; a single person in a brightly colored octagonal room sitting on a bowling ball. I was immediately hypnotized. “What is this absurdity?” I thought. It turns out that it’s an original Fox Reality show called “Solitary”. The gimmick is this: people aren’t pitted against each other, they’re pitted against themselves.
Solitary is the thinking man’s reality show. Part SAW, part 2001: A Space Odyssey, part Portal Aside from being thought provoking it also offers up plenty of grim and guilty pleasures
This is how it essentially works: 9 people are quarantined in they’re own personal pod. They’re food and sleep deprived. They are also made to undergo maddening and near torturous “treatments”, Like sitting on a bowling ball for an hour or having to smell the worst smells you can possibly imagine (such as “liquid ass”) or having to keep their tongue fixed to a plate of glass. Anyone can quit anytime they want to. All they have to do is push a big red button conveniently placed in their pod. The first one to push it gets kicked out of the game. As long as you don’t push the button first, you’re still in. Nobody knows how anyone else is doing during “treatments”. No one knows who has or hasn’t pushed the button. It’s a total mind screw. Now add to this mix a computer companion named “VAL” who’s voice is the only company any of the contestants have during their stay in Solitary. Part sadist, part confidante, and sometimes friend, a slightly less sinister version of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL, VAL is the game show host for the new millennium.
It’s fascinating to watch how people react when pushed to the limits of their physical and emotional endurance and it’s one of the most interesting pieces of television out there right now. It’s no surprise to me that it’s the most successful show in Fox Reality Channel’s history.
Solitary is also telling us that there are gigantic regions of possibility for reality television that have yet to be tapped. One of the people beginning to tap those regions is Lincoln Hiatt.
Lincoln is co-creator and executive producer of this psychotronic, human experiment. Before producing reality television for Fox he created stunning video displays for such high profile films as Independence Day and Godzilla, notably the opening credit sequence for the latter film.
I had a great time talking to Lincoln about what “Solitary” confinement is really like.
MANIA: What is Solitary really about to you? It’s so different from other reality shows. It really speaks to more to what makes people tick than just the “greed” element that you find in many other reality shows.
Lincoln Hiatt: “Val” talks about this being an experiment to test people mentally, physically, emotionally; an opportunity to push themselves farther than they ever have before. And the trick of it is, the thing that flips it around from being an ordinary reality show, the kind of reality show that I really want to watch and do…is…If Big Brother is a group of people eating away at each other over the course of multiple weeks until there’s one left and that person wins, well ok, then can you do a competition where nobody meets? That was a big question for me and absurdly we decided that we could. The audience loves this idea that…The BS of a house show, the backstabbing, switching alliances…people love alliances, they love survivor but forget all of that, can you have a reality show if no one gets to relate to anybody else? If it’s just you and you? How far do you push yourself in the absence of information? How far do you push yourself in a competition with other people if you have no idea on earth how anyone else is doing? And by the way, the benevolent bitch that’s talking to you 24/7 is sometimes misleading you on purpose and you know it but you can’t tell when so you never know what to believe!
MANIA: On a couple of recent episodes there’s a point where the contestant decides to push the big red button (the “quit” button). It’s a total mind screw. They say that they’re sure that someone else must have already hit the button but…it reminds me of poker, where you decide that someone else is bluffing or in this case that someone else has quit before you have. You’re ready at that point to push all your chips in and your making, what amounts to, a fifty thousand dollar gamble.
LH: The consequence of that gamble and that lack of information is...people push themselves on Solitary harder, I believe, than on any other show. In the absence of information they really do explore their own limits. In their heart of hearts they don’t believe that anyone else is quitting. The risk is so high of quitting early and you feel like such a dork if you do it and lo and behold…the model in episode two of season three that quit after 14 flesh pins, when she found out that everyone else went to the full forty five pins, when she found out afterwards, she said “oh my God, how lame was I?” and consequently when some of the others found out that someone had quit thirty pieces of pain ago, that messes with their heads too!
LH: And some of them will do it anyway; they completely believe the idea that this is about testing themselves, as far as they can go. At some point, of course, everyone will consider how they’re doing against everyone else but some of them are so devoted to the experiment itself that they don’t really care how it relates to anybody else.
MANIA: I would imagine that’s true for the guy on the third season that’s just a hard core fan of the show, how built his own pod in his living room to prepare him for this.
LH: Rob Rob is a really good kind of insane, he’s emblematic of our contestants for a particular reason. One of the things that I think drives people on reality show and maybe our show in particular is that in the enormously oversaturated multi-media world. With all of our technology, with texting and email, it’s Blade Runner. Billboards are now moving and light up. There are Coke machines that talk to you! All this fiction has become fact. In the same way that a lot of Gene Roddenberry’s fiction became fact in the 80’s, Philip Dick has dreamed up a lot of fiction that has become reality in this era. As a result of all this techno noise that we are absorbed in as well as buried by at the same time it’s impossible to be noticed or it’s nearly impossible to be that one Who in Whoville who’s yelp is heard above the din. And I think we all have this need for the cosmic yelp. Everybody wants to be heard. And one way to finally be heard is by being on a reality show. It’s not about fame; it’s about that primal cry of “I exist”.
MANIA: Which I think is why posting videos on YouTube is so gigantic.
LH: Honestly, that’s how I think of it! And I think Solitary is even more a significant satisfier of that need because people are alone in their cause.
MANIA: You’re also cutting them off from all of those things you were just discussing, cell phones, the internet, TV, their mp3 players AND contact with other human beings. And with technology you tend not to notice you’re plugged in until you become unplugged.
LH: I think part of the consequence of being plugged in and the phenomena of MySpace, Facebook, blogging, YouTube, I think there are a lot of people talking but not a lot of people saying anything.
MANIA So, one thing I’ve been wondering is how do you make sure no one gets hurt doing any of these challenges?
LH: We test everything and I test most things on myself. I have a long history of doing challenge shows of some kind so I’ve always used myself as a guinea pig. I may have graduated to the point where for season 4 I’ll pay somebody else to suffer (laughter). I want to know what that experience is like so if I don’t do it to myself I make sure other people do it to extremes. And that’s a requirement for developing challenges for the show. The goal isn’t to hurt anybody. Someone might get a bruise but no one’s going to get their lung eviscerated. It’s also essential that we do things that the contestant can get themselves into as well as get themselves out of.
MANIA: How do you come up with the ideas for treatments?
LH: I draw on my bag of odd pop culture references and I draw on what annoys me. Our tests are the immunity challenges. If you win a test you don’t have to do the treatment. The treatments are our elimination challenge. Our eliminations run differently. There’s no tribal council or no vote. A treatment is designed to make you quit. When you’ve reached your limit you quit. If you’re the first to quit (in a treatment) you go home. That’s a really dastardly head game if you stop to think about how that works.
MANIA: That’s basically the crux of the show
LH: It is, It is. You can be the second one to quit for nine episodes and win the game. As long as you can outlast one person, you’re in, which is also the insult and injury part of it.
MANIA: Right! Part of the insult is “I didn’t have to suffer this long? I suffered through this nightmare an hour longer than I needed to?”
LH: And some people say “I’m glad I did, I promised I would last the entire treatment”
Maureen this year, who’s this 97 pound ex news reporter is as big as a drop of water. She’s pretty and petite and feminine and you think “this girl’s not going to last” and she blew everyone away. The only thing that defeated her was her stomach.
MANIA: Right, something that you can’t really control.
LH: We do our absolute best to cast people who will participate in the experiment, who will give themselves over to it. Those are the people who enjoy it the most and those are the people you most want to watch. But there’s no way I can handicap any of these seasons and tell you who’s going to win.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our exclusive interview tomorrow.