Since the first "Survivor" contestant got voted off the island in the summer of 2000, the process of elimination has all but replaced plot as the primary driving force in television programming. Where shows once navigated story arcs toward season-concluding cliffhangers, now they increasingly consist of contests that start out with a crowd of players and then, week by week, whittle it down to a single, well, survivor.
How did you spend your summer? If you're anything like the majority of Americans, you started it watching one contestant after another lose any hope of emerging as champion on "American Idol." After that, you struggled desperately to fill the entertainment void in its wake by watching pale elimination imitations such as "America's Got Talent," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Master of Champions," "The One: Making A Music Star" and "Big Brother All Stars." As autumn loomed, you wondered what to do with your life after the final episode of "Rock Star: Supernova."
The "Rock Star" series is weirdly compelling viewing for a number of reasons. First, it's one of the few "Idol" clones that doesn't commit the fatal mistake of hiring a Simon Cowell clone. Second, it's got two hosts, a bafflingly redundant system that ping-pongs the viewer between former pin-up model and "Wild On" personality Brooke Burke and Dave Navarro, a once-relevant guitarist who comes off as surprisingly lucid given his taste in tattoos, mascara and women who used to be married to Dennis Rodman.
Once-relevant drummer and forever-legendary Internet porn star Tommy Lee somehow wound up the designated eliminator for the season. Imagine having your fate in his hands. What makes the show preferable to "Idol," of course, is the music. No sugary ballads, show tunes or Mariah Carey covers here. On "Idol," rockers are novelties. On this show, a fondness for musical theater can spell a contestant's doom. As it did finally for that pretender Ryan Star. I was surprised he lasted as long as he did. See you in the road-show version of Cats, pal.
"Idol" rip-offs and lame reality shows aren't the only fixes for elimination junkies. We've become a nation of eliminators. Just pick up a paper or turn on the TV news.
That's Katie Couric sitting in Dan Rather's chair. He was eliminated from the anchor game. CBS made all kinds of excuses and won't dispel the rumor that he was relieved for the botched story about Bush's National Guard service. The veteran newsman's real mistake was getting old.
The network recently aired a retrospective special, but the gesture came off as hollow. Rather had been off the air for months and his replacement was days from making her debut; the broadcast was more of a teaser for Couric than a tribute to Rather. "I like to think my best work is still ahead of me," Rather said near the end of the show, which I would guess had been taped before his less-than-amicable divorce from the network. That may prove the case, but only if Ted Turner or somebody starts an all-old-timer news channel. I, for one, would subscribe in a heartbeat.
Veteran journalist Connie Chung also found herself suddenly minus a newsdesk this summer. But she had it coming. Chung and schlockmeister hubby Maury Povich had actually teamed up to host a mutant current-events program on MSNBC called "Weekends With Maury & Connie." It was supposed to be an upbeat blend of news and humor, but all it managed to be was appalling. And short-lived. Maybe they can put something together with the still-available Starr Jones. Could you believe all the media attention around her elimination from "The View"? Talk about a slow news month.
Tom Cruise's erratic, egocentric deportment over the past 14 years nearly resulted in his own elimination. Am I wrong? Did we all enjoy that just a little bit? It's one thing to let Starr Jones go. If you're Tom Cruise and you get a pink slip, however, you've got to take a long, hard look at yourself. And go straight into transparent damage-control mode. Is he delusional? If he thought for a second anyone was going to believe his left-field apology to Brooke Shields was sincere, all doubt has been eliminated once and for all.
Yes, the summer saw all sorts of eliminations. Some were astronomical (adios, Pluto). Some were sad (Steve Irwin). And some were just plain sick. On rapper Flavor Flav's VH1 reality show, "Flavor of Love," one of the female contestants lost bowel control and eliminated on the floor of his crib.
Elimination certainly has been a prominent theme in the world of politics. Upcoming midterm elections have each side talking about key races in which they believe the other's candidates are vulnerable. Every now and then a bunch of generals or some lone politician calls for Donald Rumsfeld's elimination. It would appear the defense secretary has one too many immunity challenges under his belt, however.
A while back Bush responded to his plummeting approval rating by eliminating a handful of White House staff. He replaced them with newcomers nobody can blame for rising interest rates or $3-per-gallon gas, much less the mess in Iraq. Apparently the president and Tom Cruise get their PR advice from the same place.
With the fifth anniversary of 9/11 behind us, Americans of sound mind are left to ponder the tragic and perplexing reality that people are being killed every day in that country despite the fact that no one in it played the slightest role in the terrorist attack on ours. The hole just gets deeper, the body count higher. And far away, barely on the administration's radar, the man who masterminded the deaths of 3000 Americans seems to be in no danger of elimination any time soon.
EMAIL THE AUTHOR // LETTER TO THE EDITOR