2004: One big reality TV script?

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As the clock winds down on 2003, many Americans will look back and reflect on the events of the past 12 months. I prefer to look toward the new year, and the question I always ask myself is, "How much weirder can it get?"

One thing I feel certain about is that my feelings of cultural confusion won't be abating anytime soon.

The boundary lines that used to keep us all oriented on the same societal road map are constantly getting blurred, or erased.

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Al Sharpton's recent appearance on "Saturday Night Live" was the latest example. Politics blends with comedy, news morphs into entertainment, fact and fiction become interchangeable.

Some NBC affiliates declined to carry the show because they were concerned about giving a presidential candidate so much free air time. I'm reserving judgment on that question because it still seems possible to me that the whole event was a set-up for some larger made-for-TV event that we don't even know about yet.

Am I sounding like Fred C. Dobbs in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"? Humphrey Bogart's paranoid voice resonates in my mind a lot these days: "Yeah, now I get it. I see what yer tryin' to pull. And it won't work."

There are good reasons for me to feel this way. A recent news story revealed that Showtime Networks is exploring the feasibility of a series called "American Candidate" that would pit contestants against each other in a simulated presidential campaign.

One of the concerns mentioned in the story was the possibility that a participant on the show might become popular enough to run for public office. To me a more interesting question is how viewers would feel about making the contest more real by allowing themselves to be governed by a simulated elected official.

The effect of all this line-blurring is that I begin to question the reality of everything I see around me. Is it possible "The Matrix" was actually a documentary, and we are all just characters in a massive, ongoing episode of live TV?

If the answer is yes, then one of the minor plotlines is now undergoing a rewrite. The Washington Post has reported that Jennifer Ringley will shut down her webcam at the end of the year. Ms. Ringley gained semicelebrity status in the early '90s by hooking up a camera in her apartment and allowing online subscribers to view her private life 24/7, an idea that now seems almost quaint.

So what does the creator of the Jennicam do for an encore? I wouldn't be surprised if NBC signed her up immediately to host "Saturday Night Live." That would put her right on track for a major role in "American Candidate."

It kind of makes you wonder how much of 2004 has already been scripted.

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