The History of Emoxygen

Nick Martens reveals the amazing true story behind a miraculous tool used in the production of reality television.

A grown man, let’s call him Charles, stands in front of a table. Three other adults sit behind the table. They’ve just eaten a meal cooked by Charles. These adults tell Charles that his pork tenderloin is too salty. He knows he’s on national television, but still Charles begins to cry. The viewers at home watch Charles break into a full-blown sob and wonder if they are witnessing the most traumatic event of his life. Charles shambles out of the judge’s room before folding into a heaving, inconsolable ball on the floor.

Only one product delivers emotional pyrotechnics of this caliber, specifically formulated for the reality television market: Emoxygen.

Reality TV shows existed before the late 1980s, but they never gained mainstream traction for one simple reason: normal people are boring. Nobody wants to watch a 45-year-old man fill out his taxes, scream at traffic, and misunderstand his teenage daughter. Yet the success of game shows demonstrated that American audiences do enjoy seeing regular folks on TV. How to make that final push—to turn everyday life into popular programming—became the Holy Grail of television.

In 1989, a brilliant producer at MTV discovered the solution: alcohol. This producer theorized that if he crammed a bunch of abrasive idiots into a house together and flooded the place with booze, enough sparks would fly to keep the place burning for an entire season. And so The Real World was born, proving that regular folks can be interesting provided they’re young, dumb, hot, and drunk.

Recent trends in reality TV, however, have proven this strategy’s inflexibility. It’s fine to put unemployed college grads on the fast track to Alcoholics Anonymous for the sake of entertainment, but some modern shows demand that their participants demonstrate various skills that may be inhibited by heavy drinking. We know this because before Project Runway, Last Comic Standing, or The Apprentice, NBC developed the first skill-based reality show as an internal experiment.

Called Real Cooking Challenge, the show in many ways predicted the now-popular Top Chef, but with a twist: the producers employed the Real World method of emotional enhancement. At first, RCC showed great promise: a fist fight, an orgy, and three arrests occurred within two weeks of filming. But the cooking segments led to legal trouble not just for the participants, but also for NBC itself. The second “cook-off” prompted the intoxicated chefs to prepare a buffet for a charity auction. Their food sent a dozen guests to the hospital and, tragically, put a ten-year-old girl into a severe psychogenic fugue. NBC’s lawyers halted production.

The networks loved the idea of skill-based reality shows, but they knew that America would not watch middle-aged midwesterners sauté a duck breast without some degree of liquor-soaked drama. But because of Real Cooking Challenge, liquor was no longer an option. That’s when a consortium of network executives, representing [redacted], reached out to future Emoxygen CEO, [redacted]. The executives wanted a product that induced the psychological volatility of alcohol without its crippling impairment of fine motor skills. Within a year, they had Emoxygen.

Let’s get back to Charles, weeping in the hallway. He doesn’t know it, but he has been breathing Emoxygen for the past 6 weeks. Just before the show began taping, an innocuous-looking team of generic maintenance personnel arrived at the luxury Miami high-rise that would soon house Charles and his competitors. The workers connected two hoses to the building’s central air conditioning, and connected two tanks of Emoxygen to those hoses. Metered out judiciously during the night, Emoxygen’s patented blend of [redacted] has kept the participants perpetually “on edge” since the moment they arrived at the apartment. At his job back home, Charles accepted negative performance reviews with stoicism and dignity, but with non-FDC approved levels of Emoxygen in his blood, that same criticism now turns him into a wailing spectacle.

Needless to say, Emoxygen has revolutionized the reality TV industry. Producers can stage any kind of pointless competition, secure in the knowledge that Emoxygen will turn it into a bitter, shrill, hate-filled display of human insecurity. The participants will claw at each-others’ throats without provocation; they will act as if their lives depend on the outcome of an artificial contest; and, like our friend Charles, they will implode when the slightest negativity is directed towards them. Yes, thanks to Emoxygen, normal folks need never be boring again.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.