Filmmakers have been proclaiming TV is rotting our brains for decades. Paddy Chayefsky did it best and loudest in 1976 with Network. Spike Lee did it again with Bamboozled in 2000. Even Aaron Sorkin did it in the pilot for his maligned 2007 series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. All tried to show that there's nothing a network won't do for ratings, and there's no ethical line that audiences won't cross to satisfy their urges. Now writers Kenny Yakkel and Noah Pink are here to tell us, yet again, that we are all animals and TV producers will exploit that for financial gain.
In the opening minutes, affable host Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel) announces on live TV that the winner of a Bachelor-like reality show. The loser has a mental breakdown and murders the man before the turning the gun on herself. It's a shocking moment and one that causes Adam to have an epiphany.
But it's not long until he's back to playing up the sensationalism and attention he craves. He and the programming head (Famke Janssen) craft a show called This Is Your Death, in which desperate people commit suicide on air, while viewers can donate money to the grieving families. (The film could have explored society's desire to help, but only in certain settings. Unfortunately it settles for the same lessons we've heard before).
This of course is appalling to us as viewers, but it's not hard to imagine a network doing something similar, as long as they cleared themselves of all liabilities. Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex) plays Adam's producer and the audience surrogate. She's the one consistently raising objections while still doing her job of broadcasting deaths by electrocution, asphyxiation and even hara-kiri.
To drive home the message without getting too heavy-handed, a project like this needed a steady hand. I couldn't help but thank of last year's Money Monster, which took its stakes and its insane premise seriously. Unfortunately, Giancarlo Esposito just isn't there as a director yet. This is only his second movie and he doesn't have chops yet to keep this humming along and soaring above its clichés.
Luckily, he and the rest of the cast are quite good, which keeps this from sinking too far into darkness and repetition. Duhamel is giving the performance of his career here, leaning into his charming but empty persona. As much as Adam tries to move beyond his camera-loving, attention-seeking tragedy exploiter, he just can't help himself. And Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead), as his pill-addicted sister, also excels.
As evidenced by this movie, the idea that TV can be a destructive force isn't going to go away. So if we're going to keep getting movies like this, we'll need them to say something new and not just be grosser. This Is Your Death fails that test.