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May 17, 2010
Paul Asay
Dante's Nine Circles of Reality TV

Dante's Nine Circles of Reality TV

"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

So readers are warned shortly after entering Dante Alighieri's Inferno—filled with his allegorical imaginings of hell.

For Dante, hell was a pit, literally—a crater formed by Satan himself as he plummeted like a meteorite from heaven. But sinners don't just find torment at the bottom of the pit. In Dante's imaginings, hell is terraced, with each level, or "circle," encompassing a sin-specific region of distress. The farther down you go, the darker the sin.

Little did Dante know that his Inferno—written way back in the 14th century—would come to reflect the state of 21st-century … reality television.

Now, don't misunderstand. I'm not saying reality TV deserves to have its collective soul thrown into a river of boiling blood or have its collective head twisted backwards. I like Simon Cowell and Jeff Probst as much as the next guy, and I'm certainly not suggesting that any of the shows mentioned here are works of the devil.

I just find it remarkable how much of today's TV "reality" plays on, then either punishes or rewards the same deadly sins Dante discussed 700 years ago. And maybe it's even a little creepy that many of these reality shows seem to be themselves places of anguish—looking for all the world like they're designed to be Dantenian castigations, where sinners are subjected to the reprimand and ridicule of the leering legions of … well, us.

But enough preamble. It's time to knock on the door, give Cerberus a Milk Bone and enter into reality TV's own nine circles of hell.

Circle One: Limbo
Dante populated this circle with unbaptized children and virtuous pagans—folks he believed didn't have a real opportunity to become Christians. It's not a bad place, really, filled as it is with trees and gardens and Greek philosophers. But it's not heaven, either. It's the best afterlife man can get through intellect alone. To aspire to better things, Dante tells us, you must go beyond mere human thought and reason, and find a deeper meaning within God.

But perhaps I should've shaped the preceding paragraph in the form of a question. Or maybe delivered the answer as a question. Because Jeopardy, Cash Cab and any of the other myriad quiz shows would fit right in amidst the green hills of Limbo. Pick your category, double down, collect your cash and spend it at Charon's Riverside Department Store. There's nothing wrong with these shows, predicated as they are on knowledge and trivia. But they're not heavenly, in the real sense of that word, either.

Circle Two: Lust
The souls of sinners here forever swirl without rest in gale-force winds, just as their own lustful natures blew them away from God.

'Course, contestants on such shows as The Bachelor or A Double Shot at Love know all about the hurricanes that stand in for romance. Some of these shows are sleazier than others (not to point any fingers, Temptation Island), but all share some commonality with their Dantenian predecessors: Players must endure the fickle winds of their potential paramour's tastes, perceptions and moods. "I hate the way he laughs." "She looked at me funny." "He can't stand pitted olives." If they survive each episode's given gust, they might find themselves on solid ground at the end of the season. Or not.

Circle Three: Gluttony
An icky, greasy rain falls on the sinners here as they're forced to wallow in a disgusting slush. In life, their passion for food (or other temporal delicacies) was all-consuming, so in the afterlife they're insensate to anything or anyone else, other than their own suffering.

There are dozens of series and a couple of whole channels that celebrate the glories of food—from its gluttonous excess (Man vs. Food) to its palate-pleasing beauty (Iron Chef and all its iterations) to foods that would seemingly fit in Dante's vision of a terrible afterlife (Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern). But the show that perhaps encompasses Dante's essence the best—from its consuming obsession to create "perfect" cuisine to its curse-filled torments—would be Hell's Kitchen. (You didn't think I'd miss the irony in that one, did you?)

Circle Four: Avarice and Prodigality
Dante tosses both the greedy and wasteful into this circle, where sinners push around worthless weights and holler at each other.

Really, every reality show is partly predicated on greed or waste, if you look at the circles squarely. American Idol and Survivor participants want money and/or fame. The folks on Jersey Shore and The Hills want to flaunt and spend them. Hoarders, meanwhile, features families and individuals who collect stuff—often trash—until their homes nearly burst with old magazines or rusty screws. Experts try to help cull their stash, but often viewers get the sense that remedies will be short-lived. In many ways, these people's lives—and the denial they live in—are as frightening as anything Dante dreamed up.

Circle Five: Wrath
Angry sinners quarrel with each other in the swampy river Styx, some of them pushing others down beneath them so they can get a gulp of air. The damned of a more passive-aggressive nature burble sullenly at the bottom.

Most reality shows lean on wrath to goose ratings. How successful would Survivor or The Amazing Race be without the occasional squabble or sulk? At the finish line of this season's Race, host Phil Keoghan made a point of stirring up an ongoing feud between two losing teams. Forget about the winners, he seemed to be saying. Let's hear more bickering!

And Keoghan's is far from the only show that actively fosters conflict. The Real World, Big Brother and a whole host of others quite literally force folks who don't necessarily like each other to share a home, a kitchen and a TV. The resulting rows are just what network execs want. Peace may be a desirable outcome in foreign affairs, but it's murder for a reality show.

Circle Six: Heresy
Confronting those who claimed that there was no such thing as an immortal soul, Dante shows them the error of their ways by tossing them in flaming tombs. There they are tormented forever in a place they heretofore assumed they'd be comfortably slumbering in.

Admittedly, it's a challenge to find a long-running reality show that says, point-blank, there is no God. But a number of one-off programs—found mostly on the History Channel—question the veracity of traditional tenants of the Christian faith, ranging from the historical accuracy of the Bible to our concept of God to, of course, our understanding of heaven and hell. Though such shows sometimes contain nuggets of truth, most are shallow and sensationalistic—and some contain a winking suggestion that whatever we believe is a mere coping mechanism.

Circle Seven: Violence
This is where things get more complicated in Dante's hell. The circle is separated into three rings: one for murderers and the like (violence against others), another for those who have committed suicide (violence against self), and a third for blasphemers (violence against God) and sodomites (violence against nature).

But it's getting a bit hot in our tour bus, so let's just focus on violence as we typically understand it and suggest that the likes of America's Most Wanted and Gangland draw inspiration from this circle. Who knows, maybe some of the long-gone criminals given so much space on the historical variety of these kinds of crime shows now reside in this very circle.

Circle Eight: Fraud
Dante divides this orb into 10 bolgias, or ditches, where sinners (from pimps and slanderers to sorcerers and thieves) are punished in horrific ways. The makers of the Saw films have nothing on Dante when it comes to serious, stomach-turning torments.

But this column isn't about torture-porn movies. It's about reality TV. So to make things simple, let's define fraud as, simply, lying or cheating to get something. Bygone shows, such as The Mole, The $25 Million Dollar Hoax and even Candid Camera are predicated on deception. But fraud can also be perpetrated on viewers. Most of today's celebrity-centric reality shows are massaged and edited to take much of the reality out of them—sometimes to the protagonists' benefit, sometimes not. And then we have The Hills, which often seems as scripted as a sitcom.

In reality, reality TV is built on fraud. People don't really talk in sound bites … in front of a camera crew. And our real lives are never edited down into 37-minute segments surrounded by commercials. It's unlikely that what we end up seeing has very much to do with the truth.

Circle Nine: Betrayal
We've reached the bottom of Dante's hell, and it really does freeze over. Circle Nine is a frozen lake peppered with sorrowful souls. The wind is so bitter here that many sinners' eyes are frozen shut, even the solace of tears denied them. Others are completely encased in ice. And in the middle is Satan, frozen to the waist, flapping his gigantic wings in a vain effort to escape his own torment as he gnaws on those Dante considers history's most evil traitors.

Any number of contest-style reality shows (The Apprentice suddenly comes to mind) allow participants to betray their fellows. But none more so than Survivor. Nice, honest, straight-shooting contestants rarely win the $1 million prize. It's the backstabbers who are, more often than not, rewarded.

But only in this life, Dante would have us know.