A hard-boiled egg.
These days, at least for Rupert Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting network, a hard-boiled egg represents a climactic, quarter-million-dollar gamble.
Last night, prime time foodie fans of Fox's MasterChef were treated to a stunning, white-knuckle, drumrolled, perspiration-inducing, freaking-out climax of epic reality TV sensationalism when, for what seemed like hours, we waited to learn if one of its contestant's hard-boiled eggs really was hard-boiled.
At that very moment, kids and their parents around the world were literally starving to death, yet Fox had the gall to tease its viewers - and MasterChef's contestants - with whether a yolk would run or not.
I had just turned my TV on, was flipping channels, and caught a glimpse of somebody on my local Fox station tapping an egg to a soundtrack comparable to the iconic Jaws theme.
At first, I thought it was a comedy show, so that's why I stopped flipping channels. I'm not a foodie, but good, slapstick comedy gets me every time. Only this wasn't comedy, slapstick or otherwise. Turned out, even the teaser about this egg standing between two contestants and $250,000 wasn't even true. The guy whose egg I saw the judge tapping lost that round - his egg was hardly cooked at all - but his competitor was booted off the show instead.
And boy, did she wail and weep over that. Such drama!
Apparently, it's come to this for Fox, its audience, and even America's trendy foodie groupies. You have to wonder if somewhere, back in some plush conference room in Murdoch's media empire, a bunch of entertainment executives were bending over backwards to come up with the most inane scene for one of their shows.
"Hey - let's have a poorly-animated baby curse like a sailor on national television! Oh, yeah - we've already done that with Family Guy."
"I know - let's get Paris Hilton to mock everybody who isn't like her! Oh wait - we've done that already, too."
"Here's one - how many women can we get to fawn over some rich guy so he'll marry one of them? Um, but we'll need to make it different from Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire."
Not that the rest of our vaunted television industry hasn't made fools of themselves - and their viewers - over the years. But Fox actually seems to enjoy doing it, and best of all, has figured out how to make tons of money doing it, over and over again.
Is this why conservatives still insist that somehow, Fox News is even better than Murdoch's other entertainment ideas? He's making money with this stuff, so it must be good?
OK, so maybe all of modern TV isn't worse than the golden age of television. It may be vapid these days, but in some important aspects, television has thankfully outgrown some bad habits.
This past weekend, for example, a local station here was running a McHale's Navy marathon in memory of recently deceased actor Ernest Borgnine, whose fame came partly from that early 1960's vintage sitcom. It's set on an island in the South Pacific during the Second World War, and Borgnine's character, Quinton McHale, commands a PT boat and its crew, fighting the Japanese.
Well, the Japanese, along with their commanding officer, the bureaucratic Captain Binghamton.
Trivia buffs will know that McHale's Navy not only made Borgnine a TV star, but also launched the careers of comedian Tim Conway and The Love Boat's Gavin MacLeod.
At any rate, this show having been made back more than 50 years ago, references to the Japanese included descriptions that today we'd consider to be not only politically incorrect, but downright rude. Characters on McHale's Navy jokingly described Japanese people as having almond-shaped eyes, and called them by various derogatory slurs. And it wasn't just the Japanese the show made fun of. In one episode, country folk from Tennessee were roundly caricatured as slovenly hicks and bumpkins, better at square dancing than thinking.
I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I watched three of those shows in the TV marathon before realizing that sitcom may actually help explain bigotry's prominence in its day. I wondered if Borgnine would have considered his show as a fitting a tribute to his legacy now, despite its popularity when it first aired.
To Fox's credit, there were people of both genders and several ethnicities on MasterChef, with no hint at all of any stereotyping, and certainly no racial slurs. I'm not sure MasterChef could have featured such diversity if it had aired back during the McHale's Navy era, which is saying something. And true, considering how so many of today's shows have devolved into blatantly promiscuous and pornographic garbage, the only thing suggestive last night was the curvaceous shape of the egg.
But still... despite the ethical advancements television has made in some areas, isn't it just as hard as ever to justify spending the time it takes to watch what Hollywood executives dish out for us? And no, I'm not getting on a soap box about world hunger and how our foodie culture trivializes global poverty. Plenty of studies have proven that the world has plenty of food; hunger and famine today are caused by politics, not the lack of food. Still, an inequitable distribution of food (however solvable) even in the United States seems to be mocked by Fox's apoplexy over food trivialities.
And if a hard-boiled egg represents cutting-edge television these days, what does that say about the way we Americans entertain ourselves?
As I disgustedly flipped away from Fox last night, I felt like the joke - or, as one of McHale's men might say, the "yolk" - was on me.