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The Limits of

The Polish philosopher Lec once said, "I had a dream about reality; it was such a relief to wake up." Had Lec occasion to see the latest surge of "reality based" TV programming, he might wish he were dreaming.

Viewers treated to contestants willing to "outwit, outsmart, and outlast" their fellows on "Survivor" - be it on a remote desert island, or in the Australian outback - experience a "reality" very far from daily life.

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Mostly, it's good storytelling (whose torch will be snuffed next?), and the popularity of this spate of programs can be an antidote to hackneyed formula TV sitcoms. But teamwork that eventually morphs into traitor-based survival skills in order to win a pile of money can teach lessons not worth passing on.

And because television executives see dollar signs in a popular idea, the boundaries of ruthlessness are pushed even lower in programs like the newest British game show-import, "The Weakest Link" (think of a fusion of "Survivor" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"). Premiering this week with a grim female host, the first installments of this hour-long program went by mostly with no one smiling.

Then there's the prurient side of reality TV like the new "Chains of Love," showcasing a self-absorbed male literally handcuffed to three females for the duration of a contest in which he gets to decide when to dismiss which woman, and with how much cash.

A pending writers and actors strike may prompt more programming like this, where the boundaries of reality and the idea of a (sometimes) good script (like "The Mole") are blended. Hopefully, viewers will sort through the good ideas, and the really bad, and help break the chain.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor