Not long ago I was having a conversation with my friend about our constant craving for more reality TV. At one point, my friend turned to me and uttered a line I had heard several times before: "Ya know, pretty soon they're going to take this reality thing too far and start killing people on live TV." I'm sure you've either said or heard the same thing, but never gave it a whole lot of thought. Sure, we live in a violent world, but is a network stupid enough to approve of a show that kills people? And why even entertain the idea of bringing something like that to the FCC? Well, writer-director Bill Guttentag must have had that same conversation, though he didn't laugh it off and move onto another topic. Nope, he made a movie out of it. In fact, the inciting incident in Live! happens in the exact same way I just mentioned. But instead of two ordinary people having a conversation, we're taken inside a network boardroom where several creative types are trying to brainstorm the next great reality show idea.
Live! is a pretty easy film to sum up: Essentially, a television executive (Eva Mendes) trying to make a name for herself decides to run with an absurd idea brought up, as a joke, by one of her colleagues. What she wants to do is create a show in which real people compete in a game of Russian Roulette on live television, with the survivors taking home a sweet $5 million payday. While a documentary crew follows her around and films her every move, Katy (our ballsy TV exec) takes on the mission of convincing her network, their lawyer, their advertisers, the FCC, the media and the viewing audience that America is ready for a show like this. With ferocious stamina and her eye on the prize (which, in this case, means greater ratings than the Superbowl), Katy uses her brain -- and one tight skirt after another -- to seduce her enemies into thinking that this crazy idea might just work.
The greatest flaw in a concept like this is that we, the viewer, must suspend our disbelief from the start. If you can't find a place inside you that buys into the idea that a network would actually attempt to create this type of show (and succeed) then Live! will most likely aggravate you to no end. As a main character, you will despise Katy, but at the same time fall in love with her tenacity. You don't sympathize with the six people chosen to participate in the show, because why in the world would we want to root for someone who is down with risking their life in exchange for a nice chuck of cash? None of these people are likable; they're all out for fame and/or fortune, and are perfectly fine with handing someone a loaded gun if it means they'll beat American Idol in the ratings. It's sick. It's disturbing. And you won't be able to take your eyes off it.
The film, like the television show, appeals to that warped side of us that loves to watch stuff like Ultimate Fighting Championship or World's Craziest Police Chases. And hey, as long as it's not happening to us, then it sure as heck is entertaining. As ridiculous as this concept is, writer-director Guttentag does a fine job convincing us that people like Katy really do exist; TV execs who are literally out for blood. Part of the reason why he's so successful here is that, prior to Live!, Guttentag worked on a number of documentaries like America Undercover and Nanking; stuff that shined a camera on explosive real-life stories. While there's certainly something educational about following around crack addicts and gang members, we find it exhilarating to watch complete strangers slowly commit suicide on camera. It's been happening all around us for years, and as long as there's an audience out there to tune in, these types of shows will continue.
That said, Live! would've played better as a straight narrative. There are certain films that work the whole faux documentary look to their advantage, but here it just feels weird. In an attempt to create at least one sympathetic character, Guttentag tapped David Krumholz to play Rex, the documentary's producer. He's a likable enough guy, but his character serves very little purpose, aside from filling in a few plot holes that could've been worked out differently. Most of the time he's there to play up the whole sexual tension angle; after all, with Mendes traipsing around screen in a number of tantalizing outfits, there needs to be at least one character trying to sleep with her. And, in the end, that's all we're really focused on. We have no idea why Rex was there in the first place, or how he came to be involved with Katy and the network. His documentary had no point, no focus, and appeared to exist solely for the purpose of giving Live! a more "Hey, it's like The Office, but not as funny" look.
If you're able to move past all this, then Live! has a pretty satisfying ending; one that includes enough twists and turns to keep your heart racing. It's like a guilty adrenaline rush; you don't want to look, but you can't help it. And when you leave the theater, let the debate begin: Will a show like this ever exist? Our culture has this obsession with watching people suffer. Case in point: American Idol spends several weeks exploiting the people who can't sing. When they cry, the camera is right there to catch it. We feed off their hurt; we enjoy it. I'm not sure what it is about pain, suffering and humiliation that intrigues us so much. Nevertheless, the TV execs of the world are constantly looking to up the ante. And if there ever comes a day when someone is willing to die on camera, I'll bet you the bank that someone will be right there, eager to shoot away.