Reading the first 2/3 of Andrew Foster Altschul’s Deus Ex Machina felt like I was watching television. Which is appropriate, as it documents the creation of a television show: The Deserted, which is Survivor meets Big Brother meets Man vs. Wild, except none of the contestants have quite the knack of Bear Grylls, and instead of being handed a helpful camera crew that lends a shelter-building hand in the worst conditions, they’re descended upon in the night, beaten, tied up, and skiff-bound if they don’t make ratings.
Normally I dislike watching television because of the commercials. Nothing is particularly wrong with commercials, except that they interrupt the narrative and encourage the type of cliff-hanger moments common in Dan Brown novels. But in the case of this novel, the commercials are the best part. In the interim space between contestants contracting gangrene and sticking their arms in termite mounds, Altschul gives us the producer.
The producer created The Deserted as the most “real” reality television. Season 1 found ten contestants dumped in the Everglades with one week’s rations and fan boats. The premise: get out. But by season 13 the “authenticity” has given way to SUVs and celebrity appearances. But this is the natural evolution of sensationalism, what ratings demanded to keep people coming back. Yet the bloggers hate it, the tweeters hate it, the network hates it too. Ratings are in the tank.
That this is the natural evolution of reality television doesn’t stand as the most insightful scholarly examination of the genre. We can, as an audience, map that out for ourselves in the ways television has changed over the past ten to twenty years. But then you hit the 2/3 mark of Deus Ex Machina, and suddenly Altschul gets his knife in a little deeper, and what spills out is the producer covered in muck as credits roll and you’re trapped at your copy editor job wanting to read more and composing this brief review at the bottom of an article about construction because it looks like you’re working but all you really want to do is go back to the book and continue what you’ve started unpacking all day.