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It's only the first episode and already The Moment Of Truth has its own catchphrase: "But at what cost?" It's an apt question for a show that asks contestants to answer increasingly uncomfortable personal questions in exchange for money. But poised as we are on a seemingly endless fount of reality television, maybe now is a good time to apply it to ourselves, to stop and take personal stock of what our insatiable appetite for voyeurism is doing to our insides. Yes, it's provided us with plenty of cheap laughs and mindless entertainment–but at what cost? Through our ever-vigilant, Big Brother eye have we reached a greater understanding of the human condition? Or have we just reveled in the misery of our fellow humans like petty jackasses, feeding off each other's tears like Madagascan moths?

I didn't come to this review expecting to get all "the sky is falling" about the human race. In fact, I'm the first to admit I'm the worst of all when it comes to schadenfreude TV, and normally I love a thick, tasty slice of other people's misery. For example, I'm one of those heartless bastards who only watches American Idol during audition weeks, fast-forwarding impatiently through the feel-good stories about dying mothers to get to the fuck-ups so I can snicker at their self-delusion. In college, I missed an awful lot of afternoon classes to gawk at the filthy, titillating laundry being aired on daytime talk shows. I have yet to miss even an episode of Celebrity Rehab. So when Moment Of Truth was first announced, I'll admit that I got that same old evil glint in my eye, tenting my fingers like Mr. Burns in anticipation of all the excellent pain I'd be witnessing. "Soup is fucking on," I said.

But somewhere around the quarter-hour mark of Moment Of Truth, I felt oddly queasy. Not for the contestants, two generic assholes who most definitely had it coming (like all reality show participants do) for agreeing to sacrifice their dignity in exchange for a blip of "fame" and what is—especially for a prime-time game show—a fairly paltry sum of cash. No, the ache in my conscience-bone was something much more personal, and the usual pleasures I derived from seeing people shoot themselves in the foot were strangely absent. This wasn't like rubbernecking at misguided dopes mangling Whitney Houston, or watching drunken whore-donkeys cry into the cameras about how they're meant to be with Bret Michaels. This was something far nastier hiding behind a veneer of popular entertainment, perhaps beamed in from some soulless, Verhoevenesque future. Watching it, I had the stirrings of something I haven't felt in a long, long time: actual, tangible shame.

I'm not going to belabor the point with a lot of hyperbolic rending of garments, or go off on some diatribe about how Moment Of Truth represents the nadir of civilization. But I will say that this is one cold fucking show–from its ridiculous faux-UFO set to the way smug host Mark "The L. Means I'm Not The Boogie Nights Guy" Walberg asks contestants if they "care to elaborate" on how they maybe, possibly cheated on their wives, as casually as if he's prompting them for a funny vacation story. The cheap purple vapors floating around the stage are a fair representation of the pervasive, impersonal frigidity that envelops Moment Of Truth like a spine-chilling fog, poisoning any possible enjoyment with its cheery callousness. I found my schadenfreude quickly turning to self-disgust amidst the "oooohs" of the ceaselessly hooting studio audience, that old reliable Greek chorus of man's basest instincts, which I swear has never sounded more like the baying of bloodthirsty jackals (and I used to watch a lot of Jerry Springer). Is this what we've been reduced to now? Selling out our secrets–and with them our carefully constructed personal lives–for the viewing pleasure of shit-flinging monkeys, all in exchange for a little bit of attention and a pittance of cash? Moment Of Truth left me moaning about "values" and "morals" like a Brylcreemed '50s preacher burning an Elvis Presley record, and for that I hate it.

I suppose it could be worse: On the original, Colombian version of Moment Of Truth, the winning jackpot went to a woman who admitted she'd put a hit out on her husband. (The show was immediately canceled.) Thus far, none of the contestants have made it past the relatively tame first half of the oversharing pyramid–questions like "Have you ever checked out another man's privates in the gym shower?" that provoke a lot of giggles but are ultimately harmless–so it's hard to similarly condemn the American version just yet. It seems pretty unlikely that it will be unmasking any cold-blooded criminals, anyway. But stories are already floating around about break-ups in the wake of this season's taping, and even from this fairly limp premiere it's easy to see why: Watching the wife of a personal trainer learn that not only does her husband believe she's probably not a suitable life partner, but he's also almost certainly cheated on her with some of his clients, you can only imagine the tense conversations they'll be having on the flight home. And for the next few weeks. And pretty much every day until the end of their relationship. To make matters worse, since the contestant got caught in a lie, they both walked away with absolutely nothing to show for all those permanent cracks he put he in his marriage–except for a commemorative tape of the time he went on TV and fucked up his life. When a contestant loses on Moment Of Truth, he's actually losing everything, and somehow watching that is less fun than it sounds.

Grade: D

Stray observations:

- The fact that contestants are submitted to the lie detector tests well before the taping–and thus know exactly what questions they'll have to answer to reach the finish line–and yet they sit there squirming after every single one baffles me. If you're going to whore yourself out, why not go for it? Warn your family in advance and just bulldoze through those questions with your eye on the prize. Otherwise you have no business being on the show.

- Despite all of my protestations, there's a certain sick part of me that wants to see what happens next week, when the kid confronts his father about gambling away his college fund. Maybe this conscience thing is only temporary.

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