Jury of Peers
Travis Monicker sighed to himself. It was subtle; the audience didn’t even notice. His eyes were twinkling with drama, his teeth bared in a rictus of excitement. “Paul, your case has been made, and you’ve been judged by a jury of your peers.” Travis spoke slowly, drawing out the anticipation of the verdict. All the studio lights were on Paul, a balding middle-aged man from Pasadena. His eyes anxiously darted left and right.
“The public has spoken--” Travis held up his reader to the camera, showing the results of the internet poll. “--and they think you should take a dip.”
“No! Please!” begged Paul, eyes wide with fear. The tears from his emotional moment had barely dried. Paul’s fists banged against the plastic tank as Travis hit the DUMP HIM button. Paul looked anxiously as the diving board he was standing on slowly retracted into wall. When he had only a few inches left, Paul took a big breath and stepped into the pit of vermin.
Travis Monicker, the voice of the people. Travis hosted a weekly game show called Jury of Peers. It was a popular show, and had just been renewed for its fifth season. Similar to courtroom reality TV shows, each of the contestants was “on trial” for one reason or another. Some had been cheating on their lovers. Some had borrowed money and squandered it. Others were simply disgusting people. The contestants weren’t being tried for crimes, per se – that was for the law to handle. They had broken social rules, customs, or taboos. The sentences were often mildly painful, humiliating, or disgusting. The verdict of the trial was determined by an internet poll. Literally millions of people showed up on the Jury of Peers website and cast their vote for what should happen to this week’s lineup of hapless defendants.
Paul, a germaphobe, thrashed around, choking with disgust. The tank was filled three feet deep with worms, cockroaches, centipedes, spiders, all sorts of crawly nightmarish things. Paul coughed until he vomited, his eyes red with tears. Bugs had gotten into his hair. The spotlight on the tank flashed as the intense music ramped up. In order to escape, Paul had to find a key at the bottom of the tank. Some contestants spent upwards of ten minutes suffering in their own personal hell before mustering up the nerve to escape.
Travis, numb to the horrific display, watched listlessly. He would be off camera for the next few minutes, enjoying the break at the climax of the trial. He took a long, slow drag off his cigarette. Paul yelped a shrill shriek as a big mamma cockroach crawled up his leg and into the darkness under his shorts.
Jury of Peers was relatively formulaic. Travis would introduce the plaintiff and the defendant. Both sides would make opening remarks. Then, Travis would unveil this week’s horrible torture device, some sick contraption designed by the show’s writers – a pack of depraved and sadistic individuals. The defendant and the plaintiff would argue with each other. The producers tried to complicate matters by making each contestant as strung-out and emotional as possible. They’d be deprived of sleep and food during the “rehearsal”, then given lots of alcohol and caffeine before the show. Sometimes there’d be physical challenges designed to win the adoration of the public. Even emotionally abusive parents had been found not-guilty if they were able to eat a live centipede, or stand barefoot on the hot plate for the length of the show’s theme song.
If the defendant succeeded, the plaintiff would be subjected to this week’s torture. Travis thought this underscored a basic law of human civilization: when all’s said and done, somebody’s gonna get it.
One time, a pretty 18-year-old college freshman had accused her English professor of teaching the Bible. It was a topical issue-- there had just been some church vs state supreme court ruling which was a hot topic in the media. The girl was right, but she came across like a spoiled Jewish Princess. The professor carried himself well and remained calm. The public found the professor not-guilty, and the Jewish Princess was blasted with a fire-hose and made to sit in a cold meat locker with fans blowing on her while she frantically tried key after key on the lock. When she finally emerged, pale and shivering, tears running down her face, her nipples could have cut glass. The public hooted and hollered. They loved to see a pretty girl get it.
The crowd doesn’t really want justice, thought Travis, the crowd wants punishment.
“Next up,” Travis said to the camera, “we’ll talk to someone accused of hating his mother.” The “boo” light went on and the audience hissed obediently. They cut to commercial and Travis walked off-stage.
Hal, the producer of Jury of Peers, walked alongside Travis.
“We’re doing good tonight,” said Hal, hunched over his clipboard. “I’m worried about the next segment though.”
“What do you mean?” asked Travis, “The anti-mother thing always goes well. Everybody loves their mother.”
“You remember what happened last time we dunked a mother in the dip?”
They shared a chuckle. Travis hadn’t seen an audience so outraged since the first season. Dunking that senescent old woman in pigs blood wasn’t nice, but it was good television. Due to all the press attention it got, it might have the best thing to happen to the show. Front page news, ratings went through the roof.
Travis went outside to the parking lot behind the sound stage. Commercial breaks ran long these days. Ever since they introduced the “commercial plot arc”, audiences were much more willing to put up with nested layers of extended advertisements. Travis had a few minutes to smoke and slug down some bourbon. He opened the fire exit and stepped into the darkness.
“Christ,” muttered Travis under his breath. They were waiting for him.
A handful of protestors had wandered away from the throng in front of the building. Young, granola looking kids, probably college students. Not one of them was older than 25. When they saw Travis step outside the group power-walked, determined, towards the loading dock.
“Panderer!” one yelled.
“Prick!” yelled another.
Travis stood on the loading dock, smoking his cigarette and looking down with contempt at the protestors below. “Judgmental punks,” he sneered.
The crowd began to move towards the loading dock like a slow moving fist. There were about a dozen of them. The fist hit the loading dock with a dull, vaguely insulting roar. Travis licked his lips.
A cute, brown-haired girl climbed up onto the dock to confront him. This was usually where Travis would hit the button in his pocket and a burly security guard would arrive just in time to rough up some college kid with messy dreadlocks. Somehow, Travis didn’t think this girl would threaten him physically. She stared fiercely at him, fury in her doe-brown eyes.
“Why?” she asked, her voice determined, but with a subtle tone of pleading.
“Why not?” he countered, bored, not really understanding the fragment of a question.
“Millions of people watch your show,” she said. “Why do you show the worst parts of humanity? Why do you make them think it’s normal to judge and torment and condemn each other?”
Travis smiled, blowing smoke. “Like you’re doing now? You think that’s not normal?”
She was flustered. It was clear that she’d spent a lot of time mentally rehearsing these questions. Startled by the opportunity to meet the devil face to face, the words had gotten all backed up in her throat.
“No,” she stammered.
Travis cut her off, “I know, I know. You think my show is bad and evil and wrong. We turn man against man, society against the family, the family against the individual, man against God…” the girl nodded emphatically. “What’s your name?” Travis asked suddenly, relying on a sudden personal question to put her off guard.
She hesitated, then said “Diana.”
“Diana,” he repeated, taking her small hand in his, “we serve a very real need, you know. Are you familiar with the idea of catharsis?” She stared at him like a deer in head lights.
“Yeah,” she whispered, the fire temporarily gone from her face. “You go see horror movies and tragedies because it ultimately makes you feel better to experience those emotions. It frees you from the shit in your life.”
“Right,” he said, “And why did the Romans show up in droves to watch men get torn apart by tigers in the arena? Why did medieval man turn out in scores to watch tortuous public executions? Why do we pay so close attention to what we hate the most?”
“Sex sells,” she sneered, pulling her hand out of his.
“Necessity,” said Travis, “People need it. If there was no violence to watch on TV, people would seek it out. They’d be murdering each other in the streets. Reality TV is just the modern equivalent of the Roman gladiator pit.”
“That’s bullshit,” spat Diana.
“Boo hoo, I’m a victim of the tyranny of the majority,” he said sarcastically, taking a swig from his flask. “Hey, if people didn’t like seeing this stuff, they wouldn’t watch. And our ratings indicate otherwise.”
“That’s bullshit!” she repeated. Dead in the water.
“I’m going to take a stab in the dark,” said Travis. “You watch my show every week.”
“Yeah, but not because I like it,” she said vindictively as Travis smirked. “It’s base, primitive, and barbaric,” she went on, “It appeals to the lowest common denominator. It’s prime time trash.”
“Are there any other shows that make you feel like that?”
“No,” she said with disgust. “Yours is the worst.”
“So you don’t feel those emotions any other time than when you’re watching Jury of Peers. Interesting. And you don’t think that’s why you watch it?”
“You’ve gotta know your audience, love,” said Travis. “Have you seen the middle of America? I don’t mean the Midwest – I mean the statistically average person. The people that watch TV for four to six hours a day? They’re base, primitive, barbaric. They tune in because they like to feel hate, and they like to feel justified.”
“I have always believed in the nobility of the human being,” said Diana.
Travis shook his head, “They go through boring days, clock in, clock out. The winning survival strategy is to feel no emotion at all. Then they get home and want to let it all out. They want to feel something. I exist because they exist.” Travis spiked his cigarette on the ground.
“Would you like to be on the show?” he asked suddenly.
“What?” stammered Diana. “Why?”
The protestors standing by the loading dock erupted into chaos. “Corporate stooge! Sadist!”
Travis spoke over the din, “We’ve got a segment coming up where a man has never ever called on Mother’s day. His mother is taking him to trial for it. I’ve met the woman, she’s pretty overbearing, and I think she’s going to get dumped into a tank of bugs.”
Travis batted away a diet soda can lobbed at him by a bearded college kid. Without pausing, he continued, “Anyway, my producer doesn’t like it. I’d rather tag in a pretty young thing with a cause.” Diana scowled. Travis leaned in, his whisper like sandpaper, “If you’re brave enough, you can come crucify me on live TV. It’ll be you versus me. You win, I’ll take a dip.”
“No way,” Diana said defiantly.
“Suit yourself,” said Travis. “You and your friends,” he gestured dismissively to the rabble behind her, “Can continue your little campaign from the parking lot.”
Diana looked at her shoes, biting her lip. Travis tightened the cap on his flask.
“I’ll do it.”
Hal was furious, as usual, but he calmed down when he saw the cute college chick Travis had recruited. There was no time to get Diana prepped. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, just a small black beret. Squinting in the bright stage lights, Diana felt very small. They didn’t have time to give her the personality survey, only to ask her a few brief biographical questions and have her sign the ponderous waiver. She sat behind a podium, brow furrowed as Travis introduced her and set up the trial.
“Diana,” said Travis, “is representing a faction which doesn’t like our show. She’s a 19 year old political science major who is a part of the ‘purity movement’. What’s that about, Diana?”
“The purity movement is the latest revolution,” she said, “Most of today’s youth are children of indulgent parents. We don’t believe we need to destroy ourselves to be unique. So no tattoos, no piercings, no drugs.”
“Do you drink?” inquired Travis.
Diana paused. “Only a little, at parties,” she confessed, blushing, immediately wishing she had lied. Travis winked at the camera. Diana was a lamb in the wolf’s den.
“Diana, when you came down to the station tonight, you didn’t expect to be on our show, did you?”
Diana shook her head. “No, I came her to protest your show.”
From where she was sitting, Diana couldn’t see the boo light go on, but she could hear the audience roar at her.
Travis quieted them down, “Now now,” he chided, “Let’s give her a fair chance and listen to what she has to say.”
“I’m here to make a point,” said Diana. “While it may be entertaining to watch people suffer, it’s not right.”
“And I,” said Travis, eyes twinkling, “will be the defendant.” The audience gasped. “That’s right my friends and neighbors, I will defend this show and its viewers. Diana will make a case against us, and I will try to refute it. Is Jury of Peers good or bad for the public? You,” he said, pointing at the camera, “will go to our website and vote on who you think is right. Whoever loses will take a dip in the tank.” The camera panned over to the vermin chamber before fading to commercial break.
Across the nation, people crowded onto couches. Rowdy bars quieted down. Families chewed their TV dinners, their eyes reflecting the flickering TV light. Some people cheered for Diana, others cursed at their screens. The website burned through bandwidth. Jury of Peers was putting itself on trial.
Diana was sharp.
“Television shows like Jury of Peers are turning the average person into a member of a lynch mob. People tune in every week to help judge someone for breaking social rules? This is America, supposedly a nation founded by rebels and free thinkers. Individuality is supposed to be praised, not punished!” Diana’s eyes were fierce. She hadn’t prepared this speech; she was speaking from the heart. The audience listened in rapt attention.
“Every week, you condemn someone for not conforming to the will of the majority. You reinforce the idea that the individual is supposed to fall in line and act like everyone else. It’s madness.”
“Madness?” asked Travis, “Do you know what insanity is? It’s the lone gunman, the crazed protestor, the lunatic fringe. It’s the terrorist who throws rocks at institutions. Our viewers are the bread and butter of America. The law isn’t empowered to persecute social deviants, but we can. We come together to try and make America better. More pure.”
Diana was flustered. “Make America better? By punishing a few people for things which aren’t even against the law?”
“We live by many more rules than legal ones. There are rules to every organized system,” replied Travis coolly. “For example, there are tons of ways you can get fired from a job without breaking the company policies. These social rules are just as real as the laws we all live by. But social rules aren’t enforced by police, they’re upheld by every person that participates in them. Jury of Peers is a natural extension of an everyday occurrence.”
Diana reeled as if she’d been punched. “At my university, there’s a guy who is in love with a personality-construct. It’s a robot with human feelings, basically. Well after seeing your show last week about the guy who left his wife for a personality-construct, some fratboys at my campus decided to go smash his terminal and apparatus. They killed his lover and broke the law for your ‘social rules.’”
Travis responded with disgust. “Are you seriously defending robosexuality?” He was smirking like a jackal.
“Who cares who he’s in love with if it’s not hurting anybody?”
“Everybody,” Travis scoffed, “If everybody fell in love with robots, our population would decay and our economy would plummet. A nation needs new babies. You can’t just go around pretending that robots are people. I’m sorry, but the person we had on our show last week was deluded, and delusions like that need a reality check.” The audience responded with light applause.
Diana was getting worked up. She bared her teeth to Travis, “So now we’ve gotta put our society first and our hearts second?”
Travis dismissed her with a wave, “Diana dear, people are dominated by their base animal instincts. What makes us human is that we can resist them. That’s one of society’s benefits: it helps us overcome our animal programming. Were it not for society’s conditioning, people would be defecating in the streets. There would be crime and murder. We wouldn’t be human.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” she hissed. Travis was twisting her words to piss her off and it was working. Diana collected herself – she had learned how to resist peer pressure and temptation. She just had to focus on resisting the urge to respond emotionally. She’d sublimate that fire and temper her tongue.
“Let me ask you something Diana,” said Travis. “You and your friends watch Jury of Peers every week, don’t you?”
“Yes, but that’s because we hate it. We’re collecting data to make a case against it. Right now I’m writing a term paper on how shows like yours are shaping the American narrative into an Us versus Them mentality.”
“I’m guessing Jury of Peers gives you more of an emotional reaction than anything else on TV.”
“I don’t watch a lot of TV,” said Diana with pride, “so, you could say that.”
“And Jury of Peers makes you angry enough to come down here and protest it?”
“I think a good person has to fight against what he or she thinks is wrong,” replied Diana.
“Well then you’re our target audience,” said Travis with a smile. The audience laughed. “You’re a person who’s frustrated with the decay of civilization, and you want to do something about it. I don’t see anything wrong with that. You’re wrong, but I think it’s wonderful that my show has motivated you to do what you think is right.”
Diana blinked. “I’m not wrong. It’s wrong to condemn others just because they don’t follow some imaginary societal rules. It’s irrational mob justice designed to punish nonconformity and unpopularity.”
“I am offended,” said Travis gravely, “that you would characterize our audience as an unthinking mob. They are capable of deciding what’s wrong for themselves. We give them a choice, after all. And if they don’t like either option, they can choose to change the channel and watch something else.” Off stage, Hal the producer palmed his face.
“You,” continued Travis, “want people to change the world, but only if they agree with you. You think you have the only correct view point, that Jury of Peers is evil and wrong. You think it’s destroying America, but I’ve got news for you – it is America.”
“No,” snapped Diana, finally losing her temper, “America is like this because it’s been spoon fed crap for so many years they don’t know what real food tastes like. You’re feeding them scraps of hamburger meat when they’re hungry for steak. It’s because of shows like this that nearly all public discourse has devolved into finger pointing and name calling. A radical showcase, or a showcase for radicals? It’s all tits and beer, flashing lights, violence and fear. What happened to the enlightenment, the renaissance? What happened to the information age?” Diana squinted at the audience, her lips pursed with anger, “You could be a nation of poets and philosophers!” she shouted at them, “Stop being serfs!” There was an uncomfortable silence.
Travis licked his lips. “If people didn’t want this culture, they’d reject it. But look around – they embrace it.” Diana was surprised that he didn’t disagree with her. Travis continued, coolly, “And what would you say to those that don’t want to live in your ivory tower? Too bad? Your opinion doesn’t matter? You must live in a world where nobody gets hurt? Where nobody gets piercings or tattoos? We made this materialist bed, and it’s comfy as fuck.” The audience roared, some of them standing up and cheering from their tattered couches across the country. Others booed. Nobody changed the channel. They’d have to bleep the “fuck”, this was network TV after all.
From off stage, Hal gestured to Travis, indicating it was time to wrap it up.
Diana sighed and mumbled something,
“What’s that?” Travis asked, leaning in.
“The tyranny of the majority,” she said, looking into the bright stage lights. “Non serviam.”
Travis addressed the camera. “Remember to log into our website and cast your vote for who gets to take a dip.”
During the commercial break before the verdict was announced, Diana sipped water. “I’m fucked.”
Travis, perspiring under the stage lights and bourbon, raised an eyebrow. “Nervous about the results?”
“If people agree with me, they won’t participate,” she said. “If I convinced people that it’s wrong to participate in this mob justice, they won’t vote. So I’ll lose.”
Travis took a long, slow drag off his cigarette.
“People are predictable animals,” he said. “In the end, somebody’s gonna get it.”
They website was bustling with activity. The forums raced as millions of votes were cast. The tech guys struggled to keep the website up as record numbers of people jabbered in capslock. Did Diana blow anyone’s mind? Would Travis, the executioner, be executed? The audience had never seen that before. Even Travis didn’t know how it would turn out.
The lights came up. The numbers came in. Hal’s eyes bugged out – this had to be some kind of record. Travis stood before a rapt audience.
“Tonight,” he said, “we’ve put ourselves on trial. Not just Jury of Peers and its charming host,” he said with a wink, “but the audience itself.” The camera across the sea of faces staring intently at Travis, then slowly zoomed in on his face as he spoke.
“Tonight we’ve asked you to characterize yourselves. Do you tune in every week to see suffering? Or justice?” Travis paused. “Are you a jury? Or a lynch mob?”
The TV cut back and forth between Travis and Diana, who was standing on the platform atop the tank of bugs, her nose crinkled with disgust. If she won, she’d be hoisted out of the tank and replaced by Travis in his expensive suit. If she lost, she’d be taking the plunge into the horrible tank.
“And tonight,” he said, “a record number of people have cast their vote. The public has spoken.” He paused as the voting chart was displayed on the screen. “And Diana is taking a bug bath.”
Across America, the audience rose to their feet, roaring. Diana screamed like she was in a horror movie as she plummeted into the filth. Catharsis.
The cameras stayed on her, documenting every twitch, every thrash, every twist, every tear. The bugs crawled all over her body as Travis smoked in silence.
Hal, a silhouette, appeared beside Travis.
“Big turnout this week,” he said.
Diana felt like she was in a medieval pillory, her suffering put on display for all to participate in. In olden times, they’d come by to throw rocks and piss on her. Today they’d turn up the volume.
“I think,” said Hal, “that a lot of the viewers that don’t usually vote probably bit down and did it.”
“Yeah?” asked Travis, drunk, watching quietly, “Then why did she lose?”
Hal shrugged, in the middle of a text message. Travis asked, “Did you fudge the numbers?”
Hal was a world away, poking at the digits of his phone.
Travis sighed, feeling dizzy. “Was it close?”
Then, “Never mind. I guess I’d rather not know.”