'Are You Hot?' Is It Nuclear?

The morning after the Michael Jackson interview aired in the United States, the Feds raised the terror-alert level to high. The connection is apparent. Only people living in a panic caldron set to simmer could sit through two hours of the faded pop star's insisting on the normalcy of his own weird existence behind a surgically altered mask more stylized and impenetrable than those he makes his children wear in public.

What a long strange trip it's been, these past 18 months. After America's sense of security was blown up in its two most important cities, its people became their best selves, or tried to be. Worshipers who had fallen away returned to churches. Comfort foods were back in vogue, potpies and macaroni and cheese. Flag sales tripled at Wal-Mart. Everywhere people vowed to hug harder, call more often, keep in touch, stay home. It was a time when the term "hero" got a workout, and for good reason. And then, almost effortlessly, the nation segued from heroes to bachelors. If war begins it will be required to make a similarly dissonant shift, from bachelors to orphans.

The planets are in particularly odd alignment at this moment. America stands on the brink of war, while New Yorkers and Washingtonians futilely stockpile duct tape and bottled water against the fear of attacks that would probably trump anything available at the hardware store or the grocery. At the same time, in television it is sweeps month, so that the strengths and the concerns of the nation are amply matched by its most puerile impulses.

It surely isn't coincidence that the reality show has become the dominant mode of entertainment (using that word very, very loosely) at a time of such constant low-level anxiety. With viewers frightened, fatigued and afraid of the future, there's probably a certain comfort in watching those feeling precisely the same thing, albeit while pursuing a big payday in the jungles of the Amazon or a hunky guy in a spread in sunny California. These shows are bad stuff lite: all of the taste, none of the calories of a dirty bomb or a prolonged Middle Eastern war.

The Arab world could be forgiven for thinking that what's on the tube today forecasts the end of a culture as surely as the orgies of ancient Rome or the self-indulgence of the last dauphins did. But at least the French left behind some really great furniture. Can it be that one of the legacies of the most dominant nation on earth will be the execrable "Are You Hot?" This new one is to "American Idol" what the Miss USA pageant is to Miss America: no talent required, just a bod and a face, which will be perused, criticized and dismissed by a panel of judges. What a lovely atmosphere in which to convince adolescents that it's their character that counts.

But "Are You Hot?" is certainly a worthy successor to "Joe Millionaire," the race to snag a Dudley Do-Right look-alike that suggests all women are gold diggers, as sexist as any cultural reference in years, with the possible exception of beer ads. Then there are all the other shows with has-been celebrities and actress-model wanna-bes shot in close-up as they make fools of themselves, or are made fools of. (Anna Nicole Smith: please get professional help. And I don't mean a new decorator.) The Jackson interview was as close as we come, in this age in which tattooed ladies are commonplace and someone in the East Village is happy to drive a spike through your neck, to the freak shows of P. T. Barnum. Like rubbernecking at the scene of an accident, only way longer. All that mattered was that the ratings were enormous.

Jerry Springer seems less radical every day; Maury Povich, who once did shows that were about something, now presides over the DNA testing of infants whose teenage father may be either this guy or that. Even HBO, the gold standard of a tin industry, runs porn in the shabby guise of documentaries with no redeeming value about strippers and hookers. At least there's "Law & Order," our "Lysistrata."

Dancing on the rim of the volcano: there's no doubt about it. Only people who are really numb, or want to be, could stomach stuff so tawdry and stupid. The operative word is "escapist," and after listening to Osama bin Laden's latest threats, looking at a schematic of all those already deployed in the Gulf, reading a few "helpful hints" on what to do in the event of a biological or chemical attack (stay upwind--duh) and talking to the kids about how to get in touch if "something happens," escape sounds wonderful. A mystery novel. A Jackie Chan movie. How else to respond to a letter from the headmaster that contains the sentence "Should an alert be received, we will shut and seal the school's air intake system"?

But most of the escapist TV entertainment of the moment feels a little like destroying the village in order to save it. Can it really be necessary to so cheapen the franchise that anxiety over the onset of war must be muffled by the question of whether Aaron will propose to Helene or to Brooke? It was Helene. They got engaged. They broke up. On to the next thing. Your butt's too big. Your hair's too thin. You're not hot. Is this really helpful?