by Sam Rees
Pain so often becomes a peculiar barometer. For a long time, the higher pain tolerance of those who give birth over those who don’t has been cited as a means of proving how traditional masculine values are in fact not so ‘masculine’ after all. Chronic pain often leaves the sufferer in a state of social obfuscation, we have seen during the pandemic how the disabled have been hidden from view, their position elided by mainstream discourse. Pain also suggests, with some religious connotations, a process which provides the bearer with a wisdom or virtue. Anthropologically, many coming-of-age rituals employ tests of one’s ability to withstand pain of one type or another. This deeply complex social phenomenon has been uprooted and transmogrified into the endless outpouring of self-help and aspirational fitness morality we are all subjected to daily; ‘pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever’ as figurehead of positive personal development Lance Armstrong once told us.
All of this ignores the fact, however, that pain most persistently crops up as a source of entertainment. From ancient gladiatorial spectacle to bare-knuckle boxing, snuff movies, Dirty Sanchez and everything else, we love to see people hurting. Why is this? Is it relief that it’s not us? Thrill to be witnessing something so out of the ordinary? A deep malevolent spite for our fellow humans? I think there’s something else going on.
What, then, are we to make of Kings of Pain? The premise of the show is simple enough. Two plucky young adventurers span the globe in search of various fauna to bite/sting/constrict them, before giving the level of pain they experienced a rating on the Schmidt Pain Index, originally the work of Justin O Schmidt, an entomologist. Despite the limpest attempt to claim they are doing something of worthwhile scientific value, the show is dumb. Very dumb. It essentially boils down to two big hairy men shrieking in pain for a minute each, surrounded by half an hour of them telling you how much what they’re about to do is going to smart.
But over the summer I have to confess I developed something of an obsession with this bizarre endeavour. Can I point to the two protagonists for this? Certainly not. Their chemistry is forced at best, for one thing. The first, wildlife biologist Adam Thorn, is ostensibly supposed to be the brains of the operation, with his trusty sidekick animal handler Rob ‘Caveman’ Alleva as the affable brute by his side. There is also the delightful ridiculousness of every episode arc, which demands you constantly shout at the screen ‘well what did you think was going to happen?’ as the two men stare in horror at the snake which has just ripped a hole in their arms, or the emergent hives which gather on the surface of their skin after shoving their hand in a tank with an absolutely terrifying looking fish.
But all of this carries with it a certain charm, it has to be said. And, to an extent, all of the aforementioned reasons do play a part in this. You are, for instance, glad that you are not them, and there is a certain kind of pleasure which comes from getting to see just what kind of a state they are in. And it does shake you awake somewhat, as you sit in your comfy room in a temperate, safe part of the world where the fish aren’t terrifying. It does good to be reminded sometimes that the world isn’t really like that, that despite our best efforts to turn everything into a shopping centre, there still exists crags and crannies which harbour beasties thoroughly ready to mess you the hell up. Attenborough it ain’t, but it’s very entertaining.
So back to the question of pain. Perhaps an interesting note at this juncture is to state that I think quite honestly that Kings of Pain shows us pain without suffering. Or at least not in a cosmic sense. There is a suffering because something that hurts will always hurt, and I’ll grant them the right to claim a physiological suffering in this way. But really it is a show that demonstrates how we can disaggregate pain itself from a wider shape of suffering, as Rita Felski describes tragedy. There is pain here, but not tragedy, partly because it is voluntary, although this isn’t the only measure, of course. People do things voluntarily all the time which cause pain and suffering, and it doesn’t detract from this.
Actually, I think the idea of suffering or even a vague sense of melancholy is absent from Kings of Pain precisely because of the specific focus on pain. It is, in some sense, abstracted from any wider context, treated as a measurable variant in and of itself, something we are not used to. It’s alien for us to discuss pain without reference to something other than the pain itself, the emotional effects, how hard we are finding things since the pain, how those around us have been affected. And, perhaps more vitally than anything else, the social and political contexts which made the pain possible; Nan wouldn’t have slipped on that loose paving stone if the council attended the road more carefully, dad’s back wouldn’t be shot if he hadn’t had to work as a labourer his whole adult life.
I think it’s a fair critique that Kings of Pain trivialises pain, turning it into a spectacle for entertainment, as two fit and able-bodied young men put their fit and able-bodied bodies through unnecessary hardships which ultimately only serve to show how fit and able-bodied they actually are. But as alluded to earlier, this is hardly new, it is in fact a story as old as the hills. I think it would be unfair to dismiss the show as trivial purely on this basis. For those in a state of chronic suffering, or recovering from severe injury or illness, I am aware that this is of small comfort. Indeed, it is also of small comfort for the people who have actually died or been left debilitated from these actual animals.
I do, however, think there is a kernel of real value to this show. For whatever reason, whether we want to pin it lazily on biological essentialism, or dig a little deeper, the uncanny aspect to the show, its capacity for shock and awe, sits with us on a very fundamental level, alighting something in our reptilian brains. For some, it will be as simple as the fact that the show presents a cardboard cut-out of masculinity; for the pampered urban male to see two hairy men out in the bush messing around with spiders and snakes resonates in a satisfying way-this is how men are supposed to look for some people. I personally find this aspect of the show the most disingenuous and worthy of derision.
What I can recognise in myself, however, is how Kings of Pain manages to take us out of the everyday world. I feel this really quite strongly. Ultimately, there is something transgressive and stirring about these voluntary acts of unimaginable agony. In them, we see the human being pushed to the edge of its limits, and what emerges in these moments of real honesty is surprising and I think rather captivating. The show is stuffed full of cheesy jokes and awkward cutaways, but in the footage captured just after that cobra has sunk its jaws into that forearm, there’s no hiding. It is authentic in a way that realty TV simply never is; romance or ambition or whatever else forms the basis of reality shows normally is still to complex a human experience to cut through, still too easily contrived, too easily faked. Kings of Pain calls the bluff on every Love Island or The Apprentice. There’s no faking bite marks like that.
Left in these odd, vulnerable states, the two men’s reactions are incredibly engaging. There is simply nowhere to hide, and the added pressure of having to recount the sensation for the sake of their blasted pain index throws in an additional tension. These points are often humorous, intentionally or otherwise. More often than not, Rob ‘Caveman’ Alleva, who is both the more expressive of the two and the possessor of the more natural screen charm, will let out a bizarre, guttural noise of some kind and puff his cheeks up like he’s going to explode. This eccentric and fundamentally trivial show becomes something entirely different in these moments, it becomes a panoply of the strangeness and unpredictability of the human being under pressure. It makes us see ourselves in extremis, and it is jarring how silly the view actually is.
So, yes, Kings of Pain does trivialise pain to a large degree, it is rife with problems and not exactly ripe with solutions. But I think at its heart it’s a good-natured show, I think the sense of wonder and curiosity that it’s imbued with is to be commended. Maybe it’s best understood as a series of clumsy mishaps; it’s an absurdist comedy, to a large degree, it just can’t see it. Two feckless men are trapped in a cycle of constantly hurting themselves in the most theatrical and unnecessary ways. In this sense, I see myself in this show, as I am sure many others see themselves in it too. I imagine from the outside my behaviour often looks as foolish and incredulous as Adam Thorn’s and Rob ‘Caveman’ Alleva’s does to me. That’s sort of the thing about pain, isn’t it? We do keep putting our fingers in that fish tank, it’s just that for most of us it’s a metaphorical fish tank.