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‘Unan1mous’ is unpredictable joy ride to hell

Show’s premise is simple, but abrasive players may never agree
/ Source: contributor

The game played on FOX’s new reality series “Unan1mous” is brilliantly simple: Nine strangers must unanimously vote for one of their own to win $1.5 million. The simplicity of the task is, of course, complicated by selfishness and greed. And just in case that wasn’t enough to sustain an entire series, the producers introduce a new, marvelously cruel twist every few minutes, which have made the series into a hard-to-predict joy ride to hell.

The first three episodes have introduced more twists than a full season of most other shows, keeping the FOX series moving at a pace that is just shy of the frantic That’s assisted by the fact that, despite the strong personalities of the cast, the half-hour episodes have so far contained very little getting-to-know-you time with the contestants. It’s rare to see anything except the group arguing in the living room, voting, or learning about their next penalty for failing to vote unanimously. As a result, “Unan1mous” may be the most efficient reality series on television today.

The contestants are forced to make their decision while locked in a confined, dimly lit set called the “bunker.” It’s washed in blues and grays, and feels dismal, suggesting a habitat for survivors of a nuclear war. Establishing shots suggest it’s located deep underground someplace barren, although that’s clearly just clever editing, but the contestants have no windows to look outside, nor any indicator of time. Unfinished and industrial, the bunker is like the “Big Brother” house if it was converted to fly through the machine world of “The Matrix.”

At apparently random times, the contestants are asked by a futuristic, computerized voice to enter the “Inner Circle,” a round table that’s accessible only by a bridge that spans a steaming, bubbling moat, which happens to border the bunker’s living room. In the Inner Circle, their host appears on a monitor and either guides their vote or explains their punishment.

Outcasts and embarrassing secretsAlthough he’s given no name on the show, the host is the series’ executive producer, J.D. Roth, who also hosts NBC’s “Survivor”-for-kids series “Endurance.” Here he adopts a humorless persona and stares at the contestants impassively. If they talk back to him, he ignores them as if he was merely the projection of a computer program.

Besides berating the contestants for failing to complete their “task,” one of Roth’s jobs as host is to read votes, which are cast in small plastic balls called “voting spheres.” The contestants spin a dial on their sphere to vote, then slip their sphere into their own personal transparent tube, where it rolls all the way to the host. The editors treat us to footage of the spheres rolling through a twisted maze of tubes, and with added sound effects, the whole thing is preposterously cheesy.

Yet in the environment of the bunker and the show itself, it works, particularly to keep viewers from becoming as drained emotionally as the contestants are. The players are exhausted, physically and mentally, shuffling around the bunker as if they were awaiting their own executions. And in terms of the game, they kind of are.

After the group voted for the first time and was unable to come to a unanimous decision, they were forced to select and read the contents of three of nine folders, each of which contained damning information about one contestant. The group then voted to make an “Outcast” out of the person with the worst of the three secrets they selected.

The Outcast later learned he would have to stay in the bunker and vote with the group, but was ineligible to win. After being humiliated with the revelation of their secret, that person would be continuously humiliated, but now with no possibility of any reward. In other words, this is reality television at its finest, which is to say lowest.

The contestants voted for the “participant [who] was a patient in a mental ward,” and that turned out to be 42-year-old office temp Richard. Forced to wear a uniform of industrial-grade, stitched-together material that included a large X, Richard glared into a surveillance camera and said, “You might have well have just given me a bottle of poison. I just don’t know if there’s any amount of money that’s worth this.”

Still, it’s hard to feel sorry for Richard or any of the others; after all, they’re kept there only by their desire for money and fame — and peer pressure, as every person who leaves the bunker causes the total prize to be cut in half. Otherwise, they could all walk out the door.

While “conservative Republican [and] minister” Kelly did leave, considering the remaining personalities in the bunker, it’s somewhat unlikely that they’ll all leave; even the wallflowers are far less demure than their counterparts on other series.

Reading their biographies suggests that the producers selected individuals with abrasive personalities and diametrically opposed ideologies, which makes it easier for them to justify their selfishness.

But it’s not their political ideologies, sexual orientations, bigotry, or careers that have caused the most conflict; it’s their greed. By the second vote, the contestants were so tired of the game that they decided to just vote for truck driver Steve.

The vote failed by one because “self-described womanizer” Jonathan, who’d previously tried to swing votes his way by pretending he had cancer, changed his vote, hoping he could eventually win the game. He was soon crushed to learn that his decision led to yet another penalty: the dollar amount on the prize money started to drop by one dollar every second. Selfishness has its price, and watching him realize that was a terrific moment.

As the series continues, it will be fascinating to watch how the players ultimately decide to make a decision. How does a person with a competitive, type A personality who came to win a game decide to give the prize to someone else? Or how does that person convince everyone to vote for him- or herself?

Those questions have led to “Survivor”-style strategizing, which has just started to develop. As the first group of people to play this game, they couldn’t plan in advance, so were constantly blindsided by everything the producers threw their way, from the nature of the game to the conditions of their environment.

Interestingly, the contestants were at first horrified by all of these twists, calling the revelation of Richard’s secret “low,” for example. Every subsequent twist appalled them even more, and thereby delighted the audience, as we gaze into the blender that they thought was a comfortable aquarium.

Now that the contestants are prepared, however, the producers are going to have to keep blindsiding them just to keep us entertained. Of that, we can all agree.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.