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Reality Without Apologies

Photo by Carl Posey

During U.S. Open coverage the other week, USA Network commentator Ted Robinson, remarking on one tennis pro’s up-and-down life, said, “It could be a reality show.”

Co-analyst John McEnroe shot back, “We don’t need any more reality shows.”

Now, I’m a rapt listener when you deconstruct a wicked volley, John, but we didn’t exactly need any more shitty talk shows, either, before your misconceived CNBC stab at light chat sank like a sodden tennis ball. If only a reality crew had captured the behind-the-scenes tinkering — maybe a creative-differences clash, or an uninhibited “You CANNOT be serious!” roared at a network executive — that might have actually been entertaining. And besides, Johnny Mac, are you saying you weren’t at all curious about ABC Family’s recent follow-around show Venus and Serena: For Real? Wouldn’t it help your analysis of Serena Williams’ lackluster game of late to know that she’d much rather play with her dog than train or do physical therapy on a hurt ankle?

If I appear defensive, it’s because I’m over people knocking the reality. I think we’re way past the point where I have to defend the genre — at its best, it’s like a lurid coupling of documentary and game show — but inevitably at parties someone always says, “How can you watch that stuff?” Also just as inevitably, they admit that they once got hooked on The Apprentice, even if only to laugh at how unsuitable for any job the contestants mostly are. But that’s occasionally the point: Standoffish mockery is as good a reason to watch reality as any other, as long as I don’t feel aggressively pushed in that direction, like on The Simple Life or Average Joe. Put a camera-hungry jerk in a situation where there’s plenty of rope, and my thirst for exploitative TV is sated. I just happen to think that there are glimpses of messy/funny/life-affirming humanity in the best reality programming as well.

This is my theory, then: The snobs are just frustrated that they’re out of the loop. Like being a news junkie, keeping up with reality TV is a big job (which I also wouldn’t expect those budding Trump minions to handle well). If your brain capacity for unwieldy, regenerating casts and labyrinthine rivalries was reached with Survivor: Thailand, I don’t blame you for feeling left behind.

And these past few months, with every network looking for the next Survivor or American Idol — both of which started in summer — the glut was enough to exhaust any die-hard reality watcher. Throw your energy in the direction of Hell’s Kitchen and you might miss Dancing With the Stars, the ABC series that became the season’s biggest reality hit. I almost missed Dancing myself, but from the one episode I caught it seemed pleasurably retro, mixing the kitsch celebrity/contestant pair-ups of a classic game show like Password with the gauzy, all-ages temperament of a ’70s variety show.

The newest trends have been Idol-style talent competitions; Apprentice-like ventures, in which an iconic authority figure anoints a wannabe as one of his/her own; wacky social experiments; or voyeuristic peeks into the lives of celebrities, be they hopelessly staged or fly-on-the-wall bizarre.

Where does NBC’s Tommy Lee Goes to College fit? The super-tatted Motley Crue alum didn’t really enroll at the University of Nebraska, according to the end credits. And apparently some bits were “produced and/or edited for comedy,” a disclaimer funnier than anything in this dead-fish-out-of-water show itself. You mean the hot tutor didn’t really make a catwalk-like entrance? And that wasn’t a natural indoor draft blowing her blond locks? You know the chemistry professor had to be making that shit up about positive ions being smaller than their atoms. That was hilarious. Maybe Tommy Lee isn’t really a drummer, either.

Much livelier and strangely touching is VH1’s Gene Simmons’ Rock School, which makes better use of its bull-in-a-china-shop gimmick. Watching the grizzled KISS bassist teach cheesy metal-rock values — crazy egotism, posturing, hair-in-the-face stances — to classically trained English prep-schoolers is the kind of natural comedy that needs little tweaking. It’s like watching the inner child being drawn out of little adults.

CBS pinned a lot of hopes on Rock Star: INXS — about the search for a new lead singer for the Australian band — which has played more like the little sibling to Idol than a guitars-and-grit heavyweight counterpart. One problem might be that rock attitude seems the furthest thing from anybody’s mind on this show, from the eager-to-please, not untalented but sometimes Vegas-y competitors to the squishy, anti-Simon approach to criticism. There’s way too much love and praise, and the producers should have incorporated some of the rock circuit’s more arresting signs of rebellion and dissatisfaction, like beer bottles hurled from a drunk audience, and smashed equipment. Some of the singers even point out loving parents in the crowd. Last time I checked, Mom and Dad and rock & roll didn’t mix.

As for the mommy- /daddy-figure shows, it was clear from the start that NBC’s I Want To Be a Hilton was never going to overcome the fact that from the way Paris turned out, Kathy Hilton’s Pygmalion-style judgment was suspect. Viewers seemed to agree. And bad ratings forced NBC to shuttle its David E. Kelley–produced slice of legal Darwinism, The Law Firm, to Bravo to finish its run, even though it was fun seeing attorneys getting chastised for everyday trial idiocies after network dramas present so many of them as either Perry Mason or Satan. But I was surprised more didn’t turn out for Tommy Hilfiger’s mentoring entry The Cut, which benefited from clever challenges, good casting — as essential to this genre as it is to formulaic scripted shows — and Hilfiger’s levelheaded advice and unpredictable choices. Even so, with this tax-scandal-tarred fashion mogul’s show following Hilton’s and the bankruptcy-tainted Trump’s, and leading into ex-con Martha Stewart’s own Apprentice, it’d be nice if this reality subgenre found a bestowing figurehead with less image-makeover desperation. Or maybe this symbolizes just how little we care about the reputations of our business tycoons. Is Ken Lay far behind, wading through a dozen number-shuffling hopefuls to pick The Accountant?

On the wacky social-experiment front, we saw documentary film’s bürgermeister Morgan Spurlock turn his Super Size Me experiment into the FX show 30 Days, with mixed results. His and his girlfriend’s foray into Barbara Ehrenreich territory, living on minimum wage, felt disingenuous and hollow, but watching a pale, flag-waving patriot become a Muslim for a month — from education to rituals to the sting of discrimination — was complexly moving. In the troubled-progeny world, ABC found an audience with its camping-as-therapy series Brat Camp, which treated its adult-torturing troublemakers with sensitivity, and over on its cable cousin ABC Family, the recently debuted Kicked Out gives parents a wish-fulfillment scenario where they eject their spoiled, sponging 20-something kids from the house into life on their own. It’s not as harsh as it sounds — they get a lot of help, along with upbeat MTV-style editing — but it’s a show with a conscience at least. The coping struggles of the emotionally stunted evictees are also consistently amusing, from shopping to laundry to fixing a meal. But everything’s relative: A century ago, maybe we would have snickered at how they didn’t know how to sew a shirt or shoe a horse.

The inner child needed no coaxing, though, on Bravo’s Being Bobby Brown, which easily takes the prize as the season’s most watchable roadside pileup. Not quite a fruits-of-success fantasy, yet not exactly the picture of addictive madness that rumormongers were hoping for, it nevertheless offered up a celebrity-marriage drama with tantalizing hints of a fame tug-of-war. Simply put, this endeavor was supposed to rescue Bobby’s reputation from tabloid notoriety, and it does somewhat — he has a low-key charm and an affectionately playful side — but guess at whose expense? Whitney Houston is consistently set up to be little more than a cranky shrew, dismissive of fans, a drag on all the fun, sweaty and frazzled and irritated with her husband’s lovable antics. At one point, after turning down pushy autograph seekers that Bobby then accommodates, she throws a pained look at the camera and mutters, “I say no, he says yes. Go figure.” That kind of unguarded moment is money in the reality bank, and I’ll take it over hack writers’ room product any day.


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