Wednesday, December 24, 2014

COLUMN: Wallenda

Its no real secret that I've got a pretty high threshold when it comes to bad TV.

I've survived entire episodes of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." I can be entranced by grown adults trying to find Bigfoot. Heck, just last night I sat through almost four hours of CNN analyzing, re-analyzing, and over-analyzing the Republican takeover of Congress -- and, thanks to Nik Wallenda, it was only the second dumbest thing I watched on TV this week.

Nik Wallenda is the seventh generation of the Flying Wallendas, a family of acrobatic circus performers known for their death-defying highwire acts. And I guess that's what Nik Wallenda is: a professional death-defier. Or maybe it's death-defyist, I'm not sure. All I know is that Nik pops up every so often to attempt outrageous stunts that leave us breathless and cringing and for some reason it's supposed to be entertaining.

Worse yet, for some reason, it IS entertaining, and that's what scares me the most.

If there's a gorge, canyon, skyscraper, or pod of hungry sharks, Nik Wallenda is probably sitting in his living room right now figuring out a way to sling a rope across it and go for a stroll. He's already walked across the Grand Canyon and strutted over Niagara Falls like it was Saturday in the park.

Last week, he was in downtown Chicago -- more accurately, 600 feet ABOVE downtown Chicago -- tightroping from skyscraper to skyscraper for a Discovery Channel special. I was glued to the TV -- but for the life of me, I have no idea why.

Is Nik Wallenda an engaging figure worth rooting for? Not especially. He's got a slight holier-than-thou arrogance, which I suppose one earns once you've walked over the Grand Canyon on a two-inch wire. But his cockiness drives me batty. Mere seconds after setting foot on the wire, he was amiably chatting with the hosts about the weather and the view. If you're going to perform feats of superhuman balance, at least have the courtesy to do it silently.

So I must enjoy the spectator sport of tightrope walking then? Absolutely not. With my crippling fear of heights, I get woozy just watching, even if I'm 200 miles away with my buttocks safely gripped in the folds of a comforting couch cushion. My stomach was churning the whole time, and when I looked away at one point, I caught my reflection and realized I was wearing a face contorted with anxiety. On a scale of 1 to "Pretty Little Liars" in terms of favorable TV experiences, this event was somewhere between 0 and a rerun of "Cop Rock."

So then I must have watched this show for its inherent educational value. After all, that's why we all watched Felix Baumgartner's near-space freefall, right? That guy's a global hero and all he did was hop on a balloon and then fall out of it. But it was an impressive fall, and a fall for science. Felix Baumgarter fell 24 miles and broke the sound barrier. To compare, last winter I fell three feet and the only thing I broke was my ankle. Clearly, his is an educational scientific achievement worth watching.

But walking across two skyscrapers isn't educational in the slightest. Everything I learned from Nik Wallenda I'm fairly sure I already had down pat: Skyscrapers are tall. Tightropes are hard to walk on. Chicago is a rather windy city.

So let's recap. I don't care for Nik Wallenda the person, watching the guy nearly gave me a panic attack, and I didn't learn diddly from the experience. Yet experience it I did, glued to his every move. Why?

There can only be one explanation: A teeny tiny part of my brain must have wanted him to fail. There's no other logical answer, is there? I thought I was a fairly nice guy. I've never wished death on anyone before, not even Tom Cruise. There's people I dislike, sure. But I don't ever want anyone to DIE. That's horrible. But how else can you explain my desire to watch this nonsense? Do I need serious help?

All the facts are there. What did I play with as a kid? An Evel Knievel cycle. There's another idiot who made a career out of simply remaining alive against the odds. What do I watch religiously each and every Sunday? NASCAR. And what do I say when there's NOT a huge devastating wreck that collects half the race field? "That was a boring race." I can recall times when I've taken a NASCAR potty break only to come running out the bathroom with my pants around my ankles because I heard an announcer shout, "TROUBLE!" Clearly I'm a sicko.

And this begs an even LARGER question: why on Earth would the Discovery Channel air a potential snuff film and market it as family entertainment? They must have been pretty confident Wallenda would survive his latest stunt. After all, they stuck his young worried children right at the finish line for a front row seat.

But even if they had the greatest faith in Wallenda's nimble feet, this was live TV -- which meant they had to have a contingency plan in place. The announcers mentioned that they were on a 10-second delay to avoid showing anything horrifying, but What if Nik had hopped on the wire and just gone, "Hey guys, the weather's not too bad up here and view is just amaaaaaaaaaaaa-- (splat)"?? Ten second delay or no, that's now a 90 minute special reduced to two, and then what does Discovery do? Is Mike Rowe going to come out on a street sweeper and show us the most macabre Dirty Job ever? Family entertainment, my fanny. If I had kids, I sure wouldn't want to explain to them how the silly man fall down go boom.

Maybe I'm not sick and depraved after all. Maybe we all just get thrills watching people defy death. That's why every kid my age had that Evel Knievel wind-up cycle. That's why we skydive and hang glide and bungee jump. That's why we go to the circus and to air shows and to Rolling Stones concerts. Watching others cheat death makes us feel more alive. All I know is that after seeing it from both angles, I'm pretty sure I prefer downtown Chicago from the ground floor. After all, six hundred feet in the air is WAY too high up to spot a Bigfoot.

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