I felt uncomfortable about Channel 4’s new reality gameshow Rise and Fall as soon as it was announced.
Made by the team behind The Traitors, this new series is about power — who gets it, how they keep it and what they do with it. Over 18 nightly episodes, we’ll watch as the 16 contestants scheme and manipulate their way to the top of the group, hoping to be in with a chance of taking home £100,000.
Despite their varying backgrounds — the cast includes builders, delivery drivers and nurses, alongside company CEOs and influencers — each player arrived as an equal and was quickly put into one of two groups: the Rulers and the Grafters. While the Grafters toil to build up the prize pot, living in a basement, the Rulers pull the strings from the luxury of a penthouse apartment. Only Rulers can win the cash in the end, so the name of the game is to impress your fellow contestants enough to make them vote you into one of the top spots and then keep you there. It’s a blatant gamification of some of society’s worst problems: the gap between the rich and the poor and the abuse of power by those in charge.
Last night’s opening episode didn’t do much to quash my worries. From the off, the contestants were asked to debate and decide (reality TV code for “argue”) which of them would make it into the penthouse, making some of them — including Apprentice reject and CEO of eight businesses Ramona — instant villains. As they settled into their gilded new home, the remaining contestants, now the Grafters, were sent to the basement where they were forced to wear drab uniforms and eat only broth and bread.
Then came the “work”. The Grafters were put in a room full of small electricity pylons, where they had to hold wires above their heads for a certain period of time to complete the circuit, all the while being given electric shocks. There were five “shifts”, the money available to win growing each round and the time limit increased in minute increments, though the Rulers had the power to stop the Grafters’ pain whenever they fancied.
It was cruel, and quite surprising considering producers’ current efforts across all reality TV to assure us they are doing the best by their contestants. It’s impossible to talk about reality television in the 2020s without mentioning Love Island and its efforts to improve the experience for its islanders — it even goes as far as publishing its revamped wellbeing guidelines every year to avoid accusations of exploitation or a lack of safeguarding.
But are we actually in a kinder era of reality TV? Not really — with each passing year The Apprentice leans into its silliness and makes a fool of its candidates; SAS: Who Dares Wins is nothing short of public torture and The Traitors, a huge hit for BBC One late last year, forced its players to routinely stab one another in the back. Big Brother, one of the most controversial shows of the past few decades, is coming back this Autumn.
Nasty reality TV is still king. Maybe we should be worried. Maybe it’s a step back. But — whisper it — nice reality TV doesn’t work, and it’s time we find a happy medium between looking after contestants and making exciting, boundary-pushing and, yes, sometimes mean telly. For what it’s worth, many of The Traitors players have said they were very well looked after by production.
If Rise and Fall is trying to make some sort of point about social mobility and the abuse of power by the upper echelons of society, then so far it has been lost in the savagery of the format. Executive producer Mike Cotton has said that the show was inspired by the fallout of Partygate and that it is reflective of how the real world works. “The taxpayers are the grafters and build a prize fund of money and then the government takes control of the money and decides how to spend it,” he told Broadcast magazine. Chief content officer at Channel 4 Ian Katz has compared the show to Parasite.
That’s quite a highbrow reading of what Rise and Fall has turned out to be. It’s nothing more than a reality show made for entertainment and memes.
The series is reminiscent of an old-school Big Brother task, designed to cause in-fighting, expose personalities both good and bad and drive its players to the edge. Which, in my book, means it’s fantastic TV. It’s addictive, twisty and just on the right side of lurid. Yes, I find the concept a little cretinous, but that doesn’t mean I won’t settle down to watch it every night for the next three weeks. In fact, it’s exactly that underlying grossness that is keeping me watching.
I know watching Rise and Fall isn’t a very moral pastime. It’s a shameless leeching of our dire political and societal ills, turned into a game. By its very nature, it’s turning these issues into a joke. It’s not teaching us anything, rather reinforcing that life for the real-world Grafters is unfair — and there’s not much you can do about it.