Okay, I’m gonna step waaaaaayyyy out of my usual “comfort zone” as a self-appointed critic here — and probably step in it, quite literally, with some points I’m going to make about what the over-two-hours-in-length self-promotional, self-congratulatory pablum I just watched on the Discovery Channel, Skywire Live With Nik Wallenda — says about our society in general and our collective taste in television programming, but what the hell? I’m in the mood to piss off a lot of folks who deserve to have their delicate sensibilities prodded at worst, completely shattered at best, so here we go.
First off, Nik Wallenda , an umpteenth-generation daredevil and great-grandson of the legendary Karl Wallenda, has balls of brass. He just walked across a 1,400-foot gorge that’s over 1,500 feet high on a fucking cable. It was incredible. It was an amazing feat I couldn’t undertake if the lives of myself and everyone I loved depended on it. Bravo, sir. That was some genuinely incredible stuff and I tip my cap to you with all the respect in the world. I’m not here to denigrate your amazing accomplishment, in and of itself, in any way, shape, or form. Unfortunately, the show that featured your breathtaking, heart-stopping, courageous, death-defying performance was complete shit. And a lot of that, Nik, is your own fault.
That’s because you allowed yourself, I’m guessing quite willingly, to be used. By a ratings-hungry cable network, a shove-it-down-your-throat segment of Evangelical Christianity (not that there’s really much of a mellow, “live-and-let-live” contingent among that bunch), your own fame-starved ego, and the American public’s passive-aggressive thirst to see our idols brought low at any cost — even and especially if it means their death.
Taking those culprits for this show’s demise, then, in order : obviously there are a lot of worthless channels on the tube competing for our attention right now, but few are are as openly hypocritical and shamelessly self-aggrandizing as Discovery. During the numerous commercial breaks that peppered the interminable, 90-plus-minute lead-up to Wallenda’s actual walk itself hosted by low-rent presenters Natalie Morales and Willie Geist (go on, say it with me — “whoever the fuck they are”), which was every bit as hype-inflated as the Super Bowl pregame and loaded with obviously staged “candid interviews” with Wallenda and his family and “actual behind-the-scenes footage” of his training (that just happened to include a shot of him parking a Mitsubishi car and Mitsubishi just happened to be the main sponsor of Skywire Live), they kept pimping the show debuting right after, Naked And Afraid, a “reality” program that apparently drops an overweight, middle-aged couple into the middle of the jungle with no clothes, no food, and no dignity, and dares them to survive. Real classy stuff. And this from a network that still tries to pretend to specialize in educational programming? Please. Discovery is a channel featuring lowest-of-the-lowest-common-denominator shows that are developed by greedy, shameless executives and watched and enjoyed by stupid people. Rumor has it that not only was Wallenda’s walk not over the Grand Canyon as advertised (actually, that’s not a rumor — it took place on Navajo Land along the Colorado River that, frankly, isn’t part of the Grand Canyon, and the local tribal chief is apparently quite pissed about the network constantly referring to his area as being something it’s not), but that he had a light-weight emergency parachute hidden under his shirt in case he fell. I actually hope that’s true, because I like to think that there’s enough humanity left in the assholes that make these shows to at least not want to see their star performers get killed, although that same promise of potential death seems to be at the crux of Naked And Afraid‘s apparent “appeal,” as well. But more on that in a minute.
Next up, the Christians. Despite Wallenda’s wife insisting that her husband’s main goal with this spectacular stunt was too — yawn — “inspire other people to follow their dreams,” it’s quite clear that what he was really trying to do was promulgate his religious faith, and make a boat-load of money in the process. You’d think a guy in his position would be doing everything he could to keep the amount of weight he was balancing on that cable to a minimum, but he wore a heavy, dangling silver cross around his neck, thanked Jesus with every step he took and God with every fourth or fifth step, and indulged in some of the most purple, over-the-top, nauseating proclamations of faith you could imagine. “Dear sweet Jesus whose precious blood sanctified us all and in whose honor and glory I move forward across this gorge, please, I beg in your holy name, make these winds rising from the canyon floor die down and carry me across in safety to the other side so I can give you all the credit for the work that I’m out here doing” isn’t exactly a verbatim quote from Wallenda, but it may as well be. And did you happen to notice the not-exactly-camera-shy televangelist phony Joel Osteen on hand to pray with Nik, his wife, and his kids just before he went across? Of course you did, a snake like Osteen wouldn’t be there otherwise. It seems a little bit weird that a guy of Wallenda’s background — who uses his mother’s last name rather than his dad’s, a most non-traditional way of keeping the famous family name going , and who grew grew up in the ribald world of carny performers — would throw his lot in with repressive, right-wing Bible-thumpers, but that certainly appears to be the case . You’ll find less overt religiosity in any given episode of the fucking 700 Club than there was on Skywire Live.
And yet, for all the talk of wanting to give the “praise and glory” for his achievement to his “lord and savior,” Wallenda sure seemed to enjoy stroking his own ego, as well. Every one of the completely scripted “interviews” with his family before he actually hit the high-wire was a puff-piece designed to portray our ostensible hero in the most glowing — dare I say radiant — light, and when he did finally begin his perilous crossing, he first insisted that he just wanted to ‘quit talking” and be alone with his thoughts , before duly proceeding to to yak (and, as we’ve already established, preach) to the camera the entire twenty-plus-minute duration of his trek. He complained of being thirsty when he was finished. Gee, wonder why that would be?
Finally, we need to focus some of the blame for this debacle not on its star, nor his hangers-on, nor his network bosses, but on ourselves. We watched Wallenda’s tight-rope act, at least in part, to see what would happen not if he made it, but if he didn’t. Just like the folks who are really watching NASCAR hoping to see a fiery and fatal crash. Or who are watching an NFL to see a gruesome, career-ending injury. Or who are watching Naked And Afraid to see the couple starve to death or be eaten by wild animals (another thing Discovery would, presumably, never allow to actually happen, at least for legal, if not moral, reasons). At least in the Roman gladiatorial arena they were upfront about why the crowds were there, but these days we don’t have the guts to look at ourselves that closely and honestly. There’s something deeply flawed within the human mind, or heart, or soul, or wherever it is, that the supposed blood of Nik Wallenda’s supposed savior can’t fix — in fact, the very notion that we think we need some poor schmuck’s blood to save us from anything (well, okay, specifically to save us from ourselves) is just further proof of what I’m talking about. We feel that the death of another somehow not only justifies our existence, but even more perversely sanctifies it. I’m no saint. I’m a flawed, contradictory, complex, perhaps even entirely unfathomable human being. And so are you. There’s no way that somebody’s demise is gonna change that and somehow make us “pure” — whether that somebody is Nik Wallenda, John F. Kennedy, Dale Earnhardt or Jesus Christ. We may desperately want to think that seeing someone of great accomplishment die a very public and spectacular death somehow “proves” that we’r every bit as good and worthy as they are, but honestly, folks — that was never in doubt. Nik Wallenda puts his pants on one leg at a time just like you and me. He doesn’t need to die to prove that, and his “savior” — whether real or imagined, which is another debate for another time — didn’t need to die to prove it to him. Can we please just grow the fuck up as a species and leave all this blood sacrifice bullshit behind us one and for all? Countless “living gods” and heroes of one stripe or another have either mythically or actually sacrificed themselves for us by this point, and we’re still the same sorry-ass bunch as ever. This whole “purification by blood” thing just ain’t working. Can’t we try something else?
Well, no, apparently we can’t. Not as long as there are TV networks willing to tease the possibility of death in order to grab ratings, and not as long as there are people willing to prostitute out their talents to said networks for that purpose. Wallenda can pray with Joel Osteen to find any other angle on why people were watching his show tonight all he wants to, but the ugly truth of the matter is that lots of folks were secretly hoping to see him perish, and 2,000-plus years of the kind of Jesus-freaking he was doing tonight haven’t changed that fact. It’s said that every society gets the monsters it deserves, and while Nik Wallenda hardly qualifies as a monster by any stretch of the imagination, his show tonight — and all its ilk — are definitely monstrosities that exploit the darkest recesses or our human nature, stoke them to a fever pitch, and make suckers of us all. They pervert even the most astonishing feats and twist them into something cheap, ugly, degrading, and degraded. And we respond by loving every minute of it and lining up for more.