CBS's new reality show The Activist, hosted by Priyanka Chopra, Usher, and Julianne Hough, is a fundamentally cursed idea for a reality competition show. Take it from me, not only as an entertainment critic but also as a professional activist whose day job is managing the Online Campaigns team for one the largest and oldest environmental non-profits in the US. This will not only be bad for activism, but it will also be bad television.
Why? Because the best this can hope to be is somewhere between The Apprentice (blech!) and those terrible seasons of The Real World where they made the cast run a business or non-profit. Fundamentally, the idea of pitting activists against one another as though this was The Voice or Top Chef is a terrible idea. Not only is it inherently wrong to pit activists and causes against one another (sorry, we can only have single-payer health care, free college, or a green new deal, but not all three). The best social movements are inherently intersectional, understanding that all of our struggles are interconnected. Martin Luther King, Jr. not only fought for civil rights but was also both anti-poverty and anti-war.
Today's most dynamic social movements work on multiple issues and understand that we can't tackle climate change without addressing racial justice, or education or health without addressing poverty or the environment. Again, MLK wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, "In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…
This is the interrelated structure of reality." Ergo, pitting activists (and causes!) against each other is a cynical and inherently cursed idea.
According to the show's producers, "Activists go head-to-head in challenges to promote their causes, with their success measured via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts' input." Let's break that down for one second. Their success will depend on "online engagement", "social metrics," and "hosts' input." Last things first, I'm not sure exactly what qualifies Usher or Julianne Hough to judge what makes good, compelling activism. This is like letting Ken Jeong choose the best performance on The Masked Singer. He's qualified in a lot of things, but that's not one of them. There are certain celebrities who spend a lot of time doing activism who would be more qualified to judge this.
But secondly, let me put my professional activist hat on for a moment and tell you that measuring the success of activism by engagement and social metrics is inherently wrong. I have seen campaigns do incredible, powerful work that isn't quantifiable by how many retweets it got. And I have seen apparently incredibly popular things on social media fizzle and not take hold, never affect change. This is the same silly notion that if somehow we only get enough signatures on a change.org petition that something will happen. Newsflash: that's not how the world works. And yet The Activist will pretend that the most views on TikTok and the most digital petition signatures meant you did the best.
And then somehow the "prize" at the end of The Activist is that the winning team will get to go to the G20 forum to beg rich people for money and then everyone goes to a star-studded concert. Too much of this is based in prime late-stage capitalist ideas that somehow these activists will have to simp for wealthy donors who are completely disconnected from the work based on arbitrary social metrics that look nice but actually don't accomplish anything. What a great commentary on the ridiculous nature of our society!
The saddest part of all of this is that this could potentially be excellent, compelling television. If the show devoted a portion of their budget simply to supporting the causes of the activist contestants, the show was geared towards collaboration and cooperation instead of conflict and cooperation and raising up the stories of these activists, people would love this. It would be the Ted Lasso of reality shows.
But reality shows are inherently biased towards conflict, so it's not surprising the producers of the show would only understand how to build a show around this. And it reinforces this zero-sum game ideology that we can't deal with all of our issues together, that we have to pit the interests of the environment against health against education, as though these things are like The Highlander and there can be only one social ill we solve.
To confirm all of our worst suspicions of this show, others like Clover Hogan, a climate activist, took to Twitter to explain how producers for the show treated him in trying to get on the program:
This show could be great. I hope the activist contestants get a lot of visibility for their causes and I wish them the best in their endeavors. But I curse the cynical and unimaginative approach by the show's producers. At the very least this will be fun for the rest of us to drink and angry tweet about because this is the cynical dystopian world we live in. Siri, play Bo Burnham's "That Funny Feeling."