The Block exploits desperate contestants

01:06, Nov 02 2013

In 1969 they made a film called They Shoot Horses Don't They?

I watched it about 30 years ago and when I recalled it this week all I could remember was an agonised image of a character played by Jane Fonda and that it was about a dance marathon in the Depression.

The reason it came back to me this week was the showing of the final of The Block NZ, a TV3 reality show in which three couples and two brothers were each given a house in the same Auckland block to renovate.

Working to a budget they laboured like slaves to get the houses ready for an auction and got to keep the profit.

The winner, judged by the biggest profit, also netted another $80,000 and a car was handed out to the People's Choice winner.

I detest reality shows, mainly because of their contrived and manipulative nature, but The Block is probably one of the better ones. This season was helped by a charming bunch of contestants and, as a DIYer from way back, I like the premise of transforming a dunga into something special.


I suppose TV executives will argue that the concept provides great entertainment, attracts advertisers and provides a lot of relatively cheap TV because it gets to sell the houses and sponsors pay for many of the expenses.

Perhaps the contestants don't get such a great deal, however. They give up months of their lives, become public property for our delectation in often humiliating circumstances and subject themselves to all the flapdoodle and artifice that comes with such a programme. They push themselves to the limit and will never live down any mistake they make.

This is where They Shoot Horses Don't They? comes in.

The film is based on the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy and is set in the Depression year of 1932. The plot is based on couples entering a competition to see who can last the longest in a dance marathon. The contestants compete for a prize of $1500 and the promoter makes his money by selling seats in the ballroom.

Rocky (played by Gig Young), the MC, picks up on the weaknesses or vulnerabilities of the stronger contestants and exploits them for the audience's amusement. Sound familiar?

Weeks into the marathon, Rocky decides to step things up by getting the exhausted contestants to dress in tracksuits and race around the dance floor, with the last three couples being eliminated.

To ramp things up even further, he suggests to Jane Fonda's character, Gloria, that she marry her dance partner, Robert, in front of the audience. She refuses and Rocky then reveals the cash prize is mostly a fiction because expenses have to be deducted.

At this point, the art of film starts to look very much like reality TV with actors.

The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby described the movie as an "epic of exhaustion and futility".

Now I know it's a big jump from a bleak film about the desperation of people in the Depression in the US to a frivolous reality show in New Zealand in the consumerist nirvana of 2013 but dig a little deeper and the parallels are there.

Lifestyles and expectations in the Auckland of 2013 are a long way from the dark times of the Depression but the quest for home ownership, especially in places like Auckland, seems now as desperate for ordinary young couples as jobs and incomes were for the unemployed in the Depression.

The young people in The Block would never be able to afford to buy the homes they were renovating on the programme until they were much older. Near one of the North Shore's primo beaches, at the auction they went for between $900,000 and $1.2 million. They boasted en suites, fresh decor, spa pools and good school zones which are generally beyond the first home buyer. The brothers and another couple got less than $30,000 from the sale of their houses for their trouble. Then don't forget the price of gimmicks, the inanity, the loss of privacy, Mark Richardson and the suspension of normal intelligence.

And when the prices fell flat at the end, they had to contain their disappointment and look chipper in following interviews.

Sure they were volunteers but so were the contestants in the dance marathon.

Towards the end of the marathon, The Block looked very much like an exploitation of the despairing reach for the New Zealand dream of home-owning.

It shamed us, the audience, and the overblown importance we put on having a magazine picture home.

The words "an epic in exhaustion and futility" now seem particularly apt.

The Press