'13: The Fear Is Real': Um, Afraid Not

Cody, a contestant on "13: Fear Is Real," in one of the CW series's many lowlights.
Cody, a contestant on "13: Fear Is Real," in one of the CW series's many lowlights. (By Patrick Wymore -- The Cw)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The CW network's clunkily titled new reality game show, "13: Fear Is Real," is strictly for people who think "The Blair Witch Project" is the scariest movie ever made -- in other words, people who never saw "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Night of the Living Dead," "Psycho," "The Birds," "The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby," "Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein," "House of Frankenstein," "House of Wax," "Hostel," "Alien" or "Bloodsucking Babes From Burbank." Or any other genuinely scary movie, for that matter.

Okay, we're kidding about that last one (though it is the actual title of an actual movie), but then, the CW network has to be kidding, too. Letting "13: Fear Is Real" loose on the land, starting tonight, is bad enough; billing it as some hellish, horrifying, goose-pimpling nightmare is straight out of Cuckoo-Bananaville.

Do the producers expect viewers to swallow the premise that losers on the show will be "eliminated" literally? That the "execution ceremony" concluding each episode will include actual executions? To be that gullible, you'd have to be racked with anxiety over who'll survive the next steel-cage match in pro wrestling. Or see nothing suspicious in the instructions, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

As in most of the other reality-show competitions now or ever on the air, "13" introduces us to a field of eager youngish contestants who, in their autobiographical videos, say things like, "I will do anything to win this money," and "We love game time!" You've heard it all before. As for "this money," it's $66,666, supposedly a Satanic figure, and a pretty petty pot when you consider the embarrassments that must be endured to win it. Of course, the first requisite for appearing on these shows is to be utterly unembarrassable -- to have no shame in pursuit of dough.

"I'm going to vomit," says one young woman as she and fellow contestants are tied to chairs. They all endure a variety of supposedly excruciating tortures, no torture quite so excruciating as simply sitting and watching the show. Most of the action takes place in and around a dumpy, dilapidated cabin in the Louisiana Bayou (cheap, cheap), and witty contestant comments run along the lines of: "What is that? Eew, don't go in there."

The winner will, naturally, be the person who "survives" sundry scares in each episode and over the weeks ahead -- diabolically dull ordeals allegedly dreamed up by a creepy-voiced hobgoblin who calls himself "The Mastermind" and whose presumably hideous face is never seen, at least in the first show. His role is obviously modeled on that of the sadistic old creep who issues torture orders in the "Saw" movies.

What terrifying trials are in store for tonight's thrill-seekers? Not much, since long minutes are wasted just arriving at the cabin and introducing the gang -- among them, Leah the bartender, Kelly the event planner and Cody the "ghost hunter," who has big rings through his ears and nose; you could hang towels from them. Mastermind says all will face their "darkest fears," but he appears to mean their fear of the dark, since mostly people just stumble around with flashlights shouting each other's names. The women obligingly scream bloody murder when they are blindfolded and tied to chairs, and one cries hysterically because she can't find her way back to the cabin.

Much of the bumbling about in the woods is shot "Blair Witch" style; the camera bobs and flops so as to obscure more than reveal. Often only disembodied faces are illuminated, so that everybody could be almost anywhere.

For the first 40 minutes or so, "13's" tests of endurance are routine, hokey and boring. Then the creepy voice tells some of the female contestants, "You will be buried alive," and sure enough, a few of them are loaded into pine boxes and lowered into the ground, with assistants ("I call them my minions," says Mr. Mastermind) shoveling dirt over them. Here we get into a very dicey area, a fright that can reach phobic levels in otherwise fearless people. There had to be a good deal of preparatory work with the contestants, and probably reams of legal documents signed, before the women who are subjected to the "burials" actually hunker down.

And again, one wonders how seriously we are to take this threat, and if we're supposed to go along with the nonsensical notion that contestants on a game show might actually be killed in competition. Perhaps we're supposed to be tantalized with the notion of their just becoming hysterical -- thrashing and shrieking and begging to be released. That doesn't happen either, mercifully enough, so even the seemingly potent "buried alive" menace proves toothless.

On the next show, an announcer promises, "rats" will be part of the contestants' trials and tribulations, but there's a strong likelihood that many a viewer will have uttered Sam Goldwyn's immortal words, "Include me out," long before the first episode comes to its desultory end. "13: Fear Is Real" is cruel in its premise, drably inevitable in its concept and supremely dull in execution. No one risks being scared to death, but being bored to death seems a credible threat.

13: Fear Is Real (one hour) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 50.

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