The re-staging last week in France of the infamous Milgram experiments as a reality television show made uncomfortable viewing, at least for a while. Watched by an unsmiling presenter, 80 people were led to believe that they were taking part in a game show called La Zone Xtrême. They were introduced to their "partner" for the game, a man who was then locked in a chamber and hooked up to electrodes. The idea was that the partner would attempt to memorise a sequence of word pairs before being tested. Every time he got one wrong, the contestant would have to give him an electric shock: the more wrong answers, the worse the shock. Once both parties got to the end of the show, each would win a huge cash prize.
None of the participants knew that the partner was an actor, nor that his screams of pain, appeals for mercy and eventual loss of consciousness were faked. Yet 64 of them - 80 per cent - continued to administer shocks even after there was no response from the chamber. "Don't worry," rapped the presenter when one of them looked doubtful. "Go on. You have to continue. It's the rule." This "game of death" aired as part of a documentary series purporting to examine the future of TV. It recapitulated Stanley Milgram's experiments in obedience and control in 1960s America, which were themselves inspired by the Adolf Eichmann trial taking place in Jerusalem. But it came in a week when the capital, at least, was particularly sensitive to the implications of "just following orders". The film La Rafle, which opened last month, is still reminding cinemagoers of the tacit acquiescence to the wartime round-ups of Parisian Jews by the Nazis, while the council has sponsored a poster campaign urging Parisians not to forget.
Perhaps inevitably, Christophe Nick's film, which was followed by a round-table with several cultural nodding dogs and the show's presenter as well as contributions from contestants, came in for instant criticism. Academics jostled in the pages of the next day's newspapers to point out, quite reasonably, that the real revelation wasn't so much that everyone is a potential torturer as that people who want to be on TV will do almost anything if a presenter asks them to.
The show's self-righteous tone, attention-grabbing music and hectoring editing hardly added to its tone of serious inquiry, and may have been influential in its failure to capture the expected market share. By far the majority of the country was watching Law & Order and the French equivalent of Only Fools and Horses on other channels. What's more, this documentary was a splendid exercise in having your cake and eating it. It takes real brass neck to mount an hour of prurient, can't-look-away reality telly, then follow it with a magazine programme saying how awful it is that everyone took part and watched it. The producers even followed up the next evening with another documentary, going after reality TV producers so hard that the head of French Endemol complained of "Stalinist" persecution.
Splendidly, however, much of the programme's thunder in the media was stolen by a spat that developed between the presenter, Christophe Hondelatte, and one of his guests in the round-table discussion that followed. The guest, Alexandre Lacroix, the editor of Philosophie magazine, took exception to Hondelatte's treatment of a contestant contributing to the discussion. This was in fact a highly unsavoury bit of TV in which Hondelatte, while discussing the contestant's reasons for continuing to play, insisted on putting on the record that he was homosexual, despite the man's objecting several times.
Lacroix accused Hondelatte of mounting an "interrogation" that revealed perhaps more than the programme itself had done about the coercive power of the presenter. The host's reaction, as Lacroix related a day or two later in Libération, was electric. "See the door? Out," he apparently shouted. "I'm the captain. You can get up and come and have this out with me in my dressing room. Face to face!" Childish, perhaps, but it's the kind of irony you couldn't make up, and days later the thing is still rumbling out in the French press. Hondelatte has been forced to own up to getting cross, claiming that his opponent in effect called him a terrorist.
And everyone now seems to find the debate vastly more interesting than the programme that started it all: which raises the question, how far does TV really have to go to get noticed? Personally, I give it two more years before Celebrity Stanford Prison Experiment. You heard it here first.