Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it, sings the man with the crooked shoulders and the cold, level glare. I wanna destroy passerby! Good old Johnny Rotten: they’ll have stained-glass windows of him one day. What’s he telling us here, in the charred scripture of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.”? He’s telling us, first, that he is full of free-floating violence, that he has a keen desire to take out whoever happens to be around precisely because they happen to be around, like the mad sniper popping away at Steve Martin in The Jerk: “Random son of a bitch! Typical run-of-the-mill bastard!” And he’s telling us—with equal vehemence—that the sealed-off modern self, the little traveling subject-bubble whose minding-its-own-business legitimizes every kind of social ill, the one who “pass[es] by on the other side” like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is due for annihilation.
Destroy Passerby would be an only slightly more finger-jabbing title for What Would You Do?, the hidden-camera show broadcast by ABC since 2008. It turns out that the outer-space virus of reality TV contains its own antibodies: anthro-reality shows like this one, which are packed with chewy data about the species, and which leave you not fizzing with anomie, as after a session of The Bachelorette, but nourished and strangely hopeful. The host, John Quiñones, uses actors, surveillance, and the tremendous funds of terror and awkwardness that are available to us as everyday mammals. He plants fake bigots and meanies in public places, where they oppress, harangue, mouth off. Ordinary Americans are aghast; Quiñones, concealed nearby, crouches over his monitor to watch the fun. (He often has to rush out of his little van or studio booth, grinning and bearish, to enfold the situation before it goes haywire.) If you were on the boardwalk, in beachy weather, and you passed a man loudly berating his bikini-clad wife for being overweight—what would you do? If you were in line at the supermarket, and the shopper in front of you began abusing the man with Down syndrome who was bagging her groceries—what would you do? It’s fascinating viewing, because it feels existential. With flickering eyes, with prickling pores, the onlooker/bystander/passerby begins to gauge the seriousness of the dilemma. Here is life, buddy boy, here is the challenge. Surely you’re not going to be allowed to just sit there with banana sundae all over your face. Will you rise to the occasion?