No sooner has Big Brother Australia set a new low in pop culture nihilism than the Netherlands, home of Big Brother, trumps our ace, with a TV show in which three people who need a kidney transplant will compete to win the favours of a 37-year-old donor who has a terminal illness.

The Big Donor Show is being produced by Endemol NV, the company that originated Big Brother. Viewers will vote for whom they wish to receive the kidney via SMS.

The show’s producers have defended it, predictably, as drawing attention to the shortage of kidneys for transplant, etc etc. “Some people will think it’s tasteless, but we think the reality is even more shocking and tasteless: Waiting for an organ is just like playing the lottery,” said network chairman Laurens Drillich.

More shocking than the concept has been the inability of the critical responses to get at the root of the matter, saying it will cause “confusion and anxiety”, and that it’s “not the way we would want to highlight the problem”.

Tastelessness and confusion isn’t the issue. The issue is that the event is evil in a literal and exact sense. Quite aside from the competition element — the donor and audience will choose based on the case each “contestant” presents, thus violating the principle that donation should be blind and altruistic — the basic modus operandi is that suffering unto death is being transformed into entertainment. As with the Big-Brother-becomes-proxy-snuff-movie, if you think the morality of it is genuinely debatable, then you haven’t understood how morality and life connect.

There’s no great coincidence that this comes out of the Netherlands, the home of very liberally applied euthanasia laws. It’s a society which has broken down the boundary between life and death in the spirit of pure rationality — and then found itself to its surprise that death starts to flow back into all areas of life.

Most people will feel a basic sense of abhorrence at something like this. But we’ve been trained to such a degree to transgress all taboos — whatever their content — that most people react to that sense of abhorrence by asking “what’s wrong with me?” rather than considering whether the thing itself is generally abhorrent. And though it’s not the major issue, the lack of voluntary restraint makes it inevitable that governments will eventually step in with more blanket and heavy-handed restrictions, with a measure of public support, and a case for free speech that no one really wants to defend.

Still, should some sleazebag Australian outfit buy the format, we may get the opportunity to see Nurse Lumby trying to spin it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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