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Hulu’s ‘The Contestant’ Shows How Reality TV Scraped the Bottom of the Barrel Decades Ago

By Seth Freilich | Film | May 6, 2024 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | May 6, 2024 |


Much as I loved Stephen King as a child (and, like many, was reading him when I was ostensibly far “too young” to be doing so), the first book of his that really stuck to my bones was one of his Richard Bachman pen-named books, The Running Man. As also depicted in the Schwarzenegger film, it’s about a dystopian future where a popular reality show lets people take a chance at earning fame and fortune by being chased down by bounty hunters on live TV. The type of late-stage-capitalism/Roman Coliseum dystopia here and in the more recent Squid Games often feels like the inevitable endgame for the reality television genre, doesn’t it?

People usually point to the 1992 debut of MTV’s The Real World as the “start” of reality television. The genre really began decades before, with 1948’s Candid Camera, the proto-Punk’d where people were secretly filmed in ridiculous and often embarrassing situations before eventually being told to “smile” because they were on Candid Camera. Or, to put it another way, reality TV was essentially founded on the concept of providing wholesale entertainment to the masses out of the ritual embarrassment of individuals. In 1998, while the sixth season of The Real World was airing (it was the relatively forgettable Boston season), a Japanese reality TV producer took this Candid Camera concept to the grossest extreme in Susuni! Denpa Shōnen (colloquially referred to as just Denpa Shōnen).

While Denpa Shōnen had a number of segments, the focus here is on “A Life in Prizes.” The Contestant begins by introducing us to Nasubi, a young actor and comedian from Fukushima, who moved to Tokyo to try to grow his career. There are two things of relevant note here. First, his name is actually a nickname given to him by grade school bullies; it means “eggplant,” which they called him because of his long face. And second, when Nasubi picked up to move to Tokyo, his mother made one rule very clear: “we told him, whatever you do, don’t get naked.” Once in Tokyo, Nasubi found himself auditioning for Denpa Shōnen for what he thought would be some type of travel segment on the new reality show.

Instead, he is blindfolded and driven somewhere. After removing his blindfold, producers tell him to get naked, which he eventually does. Nasubi is now going to live in a tiny room with little more than an empty kitchen, two cameras, a rack of magazines, and stacks of postcards. While they will film him, they assure him they will likely never do anything with the recordings (knowing all along that they will be airing weekly segments). All Nasubi has to do is use the postcards to enter magazine competitions, and he will be able to leave the room when he has won one million Yen in prizes (about $10,000 in 1998, closer to $20K today). “Can someone survive on competition challenges alone?”

If this sounds familiar, you may have heard a 2014 This American Life episode about human spectacles, which included a segment about this absolutely preposterous Japanese reality show. It’s one thing to hear about it over twenty minutes; watching an endless stream of clips from this horror show is a whole other thing. Nasubi is confused, afraid, and all but loses his mind (who can possibly blame him) as this situation goes on for … over four hundred days. Almost a decade later, CBS took a lot of flak for its one-season Kid Nation. But it turns out that was literal child’s play — the way this “A Life in Prizes” ends must make the legendary Fox reality producer Mike Darnell (Joe Millionaire, Temptation Island, etc.) cringe with jealousy because it is brutally painful to watch (all the more so because of the live studio audience laughter in the background). It is the peak of reality television horror, and I cannot imagine it being topped until the unfortunate day some network makes the poor decision to air actual reality snuff.

While there are a number of talking heads throughout the film who help present the story (journalists, some of Nasubi’s family and friends, etc.), most of it is told by two people — Nasubi and the producer responsible for this dreadful “experiment,” Toshio Tsuchiya. Nasubi comes off warmly. While the film does not quite probe some of the logistical aspects that make no sense — primarily the fact that Nasubi had never signed a contract and the door to his room was always unlocked! — it does dig deep into Nasubi’s emotions. Decades removed from this debacle, he speaks openly about the mental trauma this caused him, both for the months he was in that room and almost just as much for the weird fame in the years that followed. Only when he left the room did he learn that the show had been broadcasting this whole time, sometimes even livestreaming, with 30 million people watching each week. That is a quarter of Japan’s population at the time (to put it in perspective, about a third of the US population watches the Super Bowl)!

Tsuchiya, meanwhile, is a much more complicated figure. He says the right things at times about being remorseful about what he and his team did, but he doesn’t always seem to mean it as he is also still proud of what his team did. For example, he remains thrilled about that finale — “I was literally trembling [because] I got the shot!” While Nasubi and Tsuchiya connected at some point and Nasubi seems to have at least come to a peace with him, it feels a far way from any redemption for Tsuchiya.

I remember the This American Life leaving things in a pretty low place. As appalling as the central story of The Contestant is, it has the luxury of seeing what has happened over the last decade, which is that Nasubi has found a kind of peace, purpose, and prosperity. We spend two of the film’s acts looking at the ugliness of people through Tsuchiya’s literal Denpa Shōnen lens. But this last act of the film is a touching turn about the healing that community can bring to an individual, and vice versa. Tsuchiya even gets a small, slightly redemptive part to play in it, but really, much like “A Life in Prizes,” The Contestant’s arc is all about Nasubi and his journey.

Oh, and remember when I said the meaning of his name was relevant? Get this. Since he was naked throughout the show, they began by blurring his bits out with a black circle. But given his name, they quickly pivoted to using something we are now all familiar with, for better or worse … an eggplant emoji.

The Contestant is now streaming on Hulu and worth a watch.