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Is I Blew It a theatre of cruelty?

The rags to riches and back to rags premise of the show illustrates how exploitative the reality shows we enjoy are. The protagonists suffer the double loss of millions and dignity, and no tangible solutions are offered
Thu, Jun 16, 2022

It’s tempting to think I Blew It is a parable on financial illiteracy. From its debut in 2018, the show has catalogued stories of (mostly black) South Africans who’ve moved from rags to riches and back to rags in an incredibly short amount of time.

The show’s very first episode set the emotional tenor and narrative template of the proceeding episodes. Nonhlanhla, a lithe and bubbly woman from Soweto, narrates how she ploughed through her R1 million Road Accident Fund (RAF) payment on alcohol, sneakers and visits to the salon. In the fifth episode, Godfrey Sibuyi details how he received a R2 million cheque from RAF but is now languishing in poverty and is now being taken care of by his girlfriend. In a now famous scene, Sibuyi shares a story of how he once bought four full chickens and fed them to stray dogs.

“I met this girl, she used to stay on the same street as me,” he begins. “She said I look hungry and I replied, ‘let me show you who is hungry.’ There was a guy selling full chickens in the street. I bought four and fed them to the dogs in the street. Then I said to her ‘do I still look hungry to you’?”

The rest of the episodes walk a similarly familiar path. We are introduced to a cast of people who are poor, mostly by ill fate and suddenly have hundreds of thousands or millions of rand fall into their hands after an accident.

In his review of the show, Andile Ndlovu spoke of the gulf between the show’s ambitions and its delivery. “Instead of these being viewed as cautionary tales for viewers, they often elicit more laughs than any sober reflection,” he wrote.

It’s an assessment that’s hard to disagree with. If I Blew It is representative of anything, it’s the twisted consumer relationship of audience and protagonist in reality television. For the most part, the show is a theatre of cruelty and the exploitation of the vulnerable for entertainment. But, then again, isn’t that most reality television?

When the show introduces Moipone in the 13th episode of season 2, the viewer already has a sense of anticipation. Previous episodes have already primed us to the fact that she is definitely going to lose her fortune (a R14 million lottery pay-out), the only question is how.

So, when the high of the win is presented in the series, we’re already eager to meet her at the bottom. It comes as no surprise, then, that she burns through half her fortune in three months. And by the end of the episode, one can do nothing more than either shake their head at her folly or laugh at the exorbitant amounts she spent on ten luxury cars immediately after cashing in her jackpot.

It’s probably the height of snobbery to demand nuance from a show whose premise is the 360 degrees of a rags to riches and back to rags story. What lesson could possibly be crammed in such a short run time other than the prosaic “too much of a good thing is bad?”. If you spend more than you save, then you’re inevitably going to leave to end up in financial ruin.

The protagonists of I Blew It always lose twice. First there is the loss of newfound riches and financial security but secondly, there is the quiet loss of dignity that comes with your financial ruin being turned into a titillating piece of television. I Blew It is like driving past a car accident and seeing the victim invite you to rubberneck. There’s very little to be gained other than the small spectacle of watching someone else’s life come apart and quietly thinking “I’m glad that’s not me.”

  • I Blew It is available to stream on Showmax