Judge Dennis Prince reminds us that Ewell Gibbons was likely the first to pose an indigestible challenge to us all. Did you ever eat a pine tree?
Is fear a factor for you?
When reality TV had fully burrowed into our viewing lineups, the shows that pretended to be "unscripted" had become precisely that. Fawning in front of the camera, shameless displays of mock bravado, and unbecoming peep-show come-ons proved that, on TV, "reality" wasn't. One show, though, 'fessed up from the outset: Fear Factor arrived as less a reality show than an extreme game show.
The premise of Fear Factor is simple: six contestants—three men, three women—are gathered to perform three unusual stunts with the ultimate winner (read: "survivor") to be awarded $50,000. None of the contestants have met one another prior to the show and none are aware what sorts of stunts they'll need to perform until the moment before they must step up to the challenge. The opening stunt is typically a test of physical fortitude—being dragged by a horse, attacked by a police dog, forced to jump out the window of a 12-storey hotel—and it's the first opportunity where contestants can employ "head games" to distract and dissuade their opponents. Survivors of that challenge are then presented with the "gross out" game—recline in a pit of writhing snakes, gobble down sections of pig rectum, ingest buffalo nards—where the gag reflex is pushed to its limits. Lastly, the remaining contestants must compete head-to-head in a timed stunt that usually involves dizzying heights or dalliances with drowning. All the while, we get to determine who we like and dislike among the challengers, and we'll ultimately root for and root against particular contestants.
Fear Factor is really mindless entertainment, unfolding like a circus geek show as we look on to see what desperate individuals will do to earn a $50k payoff. At the same time, there's a compelling element about the show: it challenges each of us to ponder whether we'd have the wherewithal to attempt such outrageous stunts. Host Joe Rogan, a former stand-up comedian who also appeared on News Radio and the failed retread of The Man Show, is a good choice as Master of Scare-emonies here. His wry smile and probing gaze work to look into and through the contestants as he makes his own quick predictions about who will endure. His delivery is straight ahead as he approaches the challengers and their tasks in a no nonsense manner ("Ya gotta do it or you're out."), yet he frequently provides assurance and encouragement to help the struggling ones stay in the game. Interestingly, neither Rogan nor the show itself have wavered or retooled their approach. The program nailed its style and intent from the first episode and has proven highly successful in its six seasons in the NBC prime-time lineup.
In this first DVD release, Fear Factor: The First Season delivers the first nine installments of the program. The image quality is excellent and free of any distracting elements (save for the thousands of roaches, mealworms, and sheep eyeballs). Framed at its original 1.33:1 fullscreen format, this looks just as clean as it did during its initial run (and subsequent network reruns). The audio is also delivered true to the original broadcast, that being a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix. It's certainly energetic here. The only form of "extra" on this two-disc boxed set is the bonus 10th episode, that being a best-of clip show from the second season shows. This is where this flagship DVD release falls flat: since this is a reality-type show, why not provide us extended cuts of each episode to include the material that was edited out to arrive at the 44-minute run time? For the DVD enthusiast and fans of the show, Universal should have offered more material that shows how the stunts were set up, how the contestants were managed, how the various critters and creatures were wrangled, and—to put it bluntly—which challengers puked or wet themselves. Also missing is behind-the-scenes material including how the show applicants are screened and how they're ultimately chosen to appear in front of the camera while under duress. Commentary or interviews by the show's creators and Rogan would have been very interesting (certainly he has some stories to tell about dealing with the contestants and their challenges). Frankly, despite the entertaining quality of the show itself, this first DVD release is just a lazy transfer of broadcast material. Let's hope a second season release will address these concerns.
If you're looking for some entertainment that can raise goose bumps but will never elevate your mental activity, Fear Factor makes for a fun distraction. Viewed back-to-back the material can get a bit repetitive but it's still fun to ogle over. Universal is reprimanded, however, for tossing us such a cheap product that lacks any imagination or effort to help fans get beyond standard broadcast material. The folks behind this first release should be forced to drink a warm and frothy glass of cow urine as punishment—or does that happen in Season Two?
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