[When absurdity reigns and analysis is futile . . . satire.]
A doorbell rings. Voices are heard off camera. Tunisia’s Zine El-Abdine Ben Ali hustles to the door. In front of him, standing in the rain, is Hosni Mubarak. The former Egyptian leader has shoe polish dripping down his forehead from his terrible jet-black dye job. A gym bag is tucked under his arm. Relief comes over his face as the two men hug. He is among friends – or is he?
Cue a Big Brother-esque camera sweep to reveal the set of television’s new hit reality series. A collective of national and international human rights organizations could not figure out where deposed dictators might settle. Until now. With “Dictator House,” the fun begins when the regimes fall.
No longer can the despots escape their regimes of fear by living luxuriously abroad on the fortunes stolen from their impoverished and suffering people. Will they avoid prosecution in the international courts of justice? Stay tuned to find out. But in the meantime, welcome to “Dictator House.”
The deposed strongmen are given a choice: A fate like those of Muamar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein, or join the cast (and preserve their lives) at “Dictator House.” Finally a place where megalomaniacs can assemble and be dealt with in a way more in keeping with the global movement against the death penalty and violent retributive justice. A safe house of sorts, where they can enact crimes on each other rather than crimes on humanity. A place far removed from the opulence with which they have become accustomed. It is the anti-Disney. Still, better to chose the Crappiest Place on Earth than death.
Mubarak discovers quickly just how humble his new surroundings are. Ben Ali escorts him to his quarters, a dorm-sized room with a stained single foam mattress on the floor and no sheets. The frame of the window is sealed with duct tape. A Twilight poster hangs over the bed. Mubarak is outraged and demands sheets. Slowly, though, as no response comes, Mubarak looks first in confusion and then in fear. The silence is finally broken by Ben Ali solemnly saying, “I’ll see you at dinner in an hour. Jean-Claude is cooking tonight.”
Mubarak goes through his mental rolodex. “Jean-Claude?” The scene shifts to the kitchen where Jean-Claude Duvalier is stirring a pot, rusted on the outside. A single bulb overhead lights the room. He is wearing a tattered T-shirt with sauce smeared near the chest. Just two weeks earlier, after returning to his native Haiti, Duvalier had been kidnapped by angry mothers and shipped off to the remote and bitter cold location of the new reality show.
Back in Mubarak’s room, another knock on the door. He is mildly pleased to see Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Salih. He attempts to engage the former “president” in dialogue, but Salih speaks the Arabic of a second grader. When Salih leaves, we see Mubarak slump down on his mattress, exhale a long sigh, and fall back in exhaustion with no pillow to cradle his head. He is but a few hours away from learning of the bed bug infestation.
At dinner, Mubarak is introduced to his housemates, including Panama’s Manuel Noriega and the Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbabgo. Mubarak calls in vain for a translator. Slowly the room fills. Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Miriam, Kyrgystan’s Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Liberia’s Charles Taylor. Taylor attempts a joke: “You should Google me, I’m a philosopher! HA HA HA HA HA HA!” Silence again fills the room, and Ben Ali rolls his eyes. Mubarak asks tentatively, “Do we really have internet here?” Ben Ali shakes his head and hands Mubarak a pad and pencil.
Dinner time. Haitian cuisine is known to blend African, French, and Spanish influences. In the past, whenever Duvalier had cooked, his subjects raved about his culinary expertise. Tonight he has neither quality ingredients nor fawning loyal subjects. Taylor spits the food back on the plate. Noriega whispers something to Salih and both men chuckle as they stare at Duvalier. To show his displeasure, Bakiyev stands and urinates into his bowl. Mubarak, however, pigs out. He sends food particles spewing as he mumbles how hungry he is, and how nice it is to eat warm food after the cold gruel served in Egyptian’s prison.
Later that night, Mubarak is tossing and turning in bed, struggling to stay warm under a tiny coach-class blanket from the defunct TWA Airlines. The overhead night-vision camera captures only broad moments and groaning. We see Mubarak jump up and rush in search of the bathroom. Duvalier’s cooking has not made friends with Mubarak’s digestive track. He staggers into the hallway in search of the single, shared commode, only to find an exposed bulb dangling from a wire above a tiny, smelly stall at the end of the hall. We do not see what transpires inside, but the camera hangs on the door in delicious silence. We hold our breath until we hear a flush and then a scream of horror. The toilet has overflowed. Mubarak emerges with feces covering his bare feet. He calls for help. A few minutes pass, and it becomes clear that no one is coming. In the morning, Mubarak’s housemates hold him responsible for the clog and make him plunge the toilet and clean up the mess. Cut to a commercial.
“Dictator House” is a rare gem on television. Utterly addictive, it is a joy to watch the confusion and humiliation of these modern-day monsters as they struggle to perform such tasks as washing their own laundry, changing a blown electrical circuit, and cleaning up after the meals they cook for themselves. Their humiliation will not restore the millions of lives lost to their terrors, or repair the lives of those who survived. But it generates advertising revenue, and all profits go to human rights organizations based in each housemates’s home country.
“Dictator House” already has a huge following after only a few weeks on the air, and it’s easy to understand why. Episode Two brings comedian Sarah Silverman as a guest host for Quiz Night: participation is mandatory, and the housemate who accurately answers the most questions about women’s rights wins a lukewarm shower. In Episode Three, Facebook and Twitter fans offer suggestions that the writers incorporate into the show. Diehard fans can also watch live feeds from the house 24/7.
But my favorite moment of this first season comes in Episode Five: The Arrival of Dick Cheney.