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Forced To Watch: More Reality TV

I said I believed in Reality. I didn't say I liked all of it.

Steve Burgess 4 Feb

Steve Burgess is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

He writes the Please Advise! column and other effluvia as required. He is a former CBC host and author of the 2011 book Who Killed Mom? from Greystone Books. He has won two National Magazine Awards and three Western Magazine Awards.

Raised on the Canadian Prairies, he has lived in Vancouver since 1988. Find him on Twitter @steveburgess1.

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CBS launched Survivor All-Stars Sunday after the Super Bowl, bringing back favorite contestants from past Survivor episodes. Call it the television equivalent of the Eagles' Greatest Hits album in 1976--a collection of favorites from a still-hot attraction.

Who knew? Predicting the demise of Survivor and reality TV in general has been the tedious one-note song of pop culture sages almost since the show made its first spectacular splash. If they keep saying it, eventually they'll be right. But not so far.

Recent weeks have seen the launch of Survivor maestro Mark Burnett's newest hit The Apprentice on NBC, a new edition of ABC's The Bachelorette, and a new version of America's Top Model on UPN. Meanwhile a different reality genre continues to flourish in the form of Fox's American Idol. Most have established themselves as ratings winners in a season that has seen few of them.

The genre is mutating so fast I've been forced to work overtime studying it and yes, I know, I really should get out of the laboratory more often. I do intend to turn off the tube and sample a lot more real reality really soon. In the meantime, after last week's column, here's a second and last batch of my lab notes, including dissections of some of the more poorly evolved specimens.

Simple Life simply limp

Last fall, Fox's The Simple Life gave Paris Hilton her second video hit of the year. Now critics who predicted that reality TV would soon be brought to its knees are all busy writing bad jokes just like that one. Reality TV is still a subject on everyone's lips.

But many of the best reality shows--Survivor, The Apprentice, The Amazing Race--set up a simple goal that provides competitive tension while providing a framework for human interaction. Other shows--The Osbournes, Newlyweds--simply observe. In both cases we are allowed to play Dian Fossey, watching from the mist. The key is identification. Do we care about these animals? Do we recognize their antics?

That's why The Simple Life never worked for me. Rich Hollywood kids Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were transplanted to tiny Altus, Arkansas to rough it and excite the local peckerwoods. Paris and Nicole would be given a job at a local business where they would engage in silly and borderline criminal behavior. Next episode, magically, another job for Paris and Nicole! They say there are no secrets in a small town--guess the Altus grapevine was busted.

Paris and Nicole's antics were fitfully amusing but utterly without consequences and ultimately, aimless (not to mention annoying). Reality TV is about all manufactured universes. But in a good reality show, that artificial world must allow for natural action and reaction, punishment and reward.

Skanks and slimeballs

And which of life's joys provides the ultimate punishment-and-reward system? Why, the blessed pursuit of romance. ABC's Bachelor and Bachelorette series are like Cadillacs in a trailer park--the definition of must-see trash. These shows, in which one fetching single is pursued by 25 suitors who are gradually winnowed out, combine some of the best and worst aspects of the reality genre.

Packaged with a maximum of infuriating Styrofoam peanuts--teasers, more teasers, platitudes, boilerplate footage, the same interview clips played and re-played at different times, The Bachelor/Bachelorette still manages to provide an addictive junk food high. When it really works, the TV competition features at least one psycho and one manipulative skank/slimeball who manages to survive almost to the end, even while alienating the other contestants. The Andrew Firestone Bachelor series was a perfect example, coming down to a choice between the likeable, well-rounded Jen and the nasty, plastic Kirsten (not to mention that icy enigma, Tina Fabulous).

Strangely enough the much-maligned Joe Millionaire II, a massive ratings flop, ended up telling one of the more compelling romantic reality TV stories, with a shy contestant actually being chased off the show by jealous rivals and then returning to claim her equally shy cowboy in the final scene. Unlike many other such shows, the eventual couple seemed genuinely smitten. Aah, TV love.

The Bachelor/Bachelorette formula is irresistible. Basically, it's the NHL playoffs of dating. (Locally, CITY-TV had the wit to recognize that and include between-period analysis featuring their Breakfast TV crew. Too bad they don't take the approach more seriously. Fiona Forbes' analyses of suitor behavior is spot-on, and the rest of the segment would actually work well if it was played straight.)

'Don't get mad at me!'

Likewise, CBS' Emmy-winning Amazing Race has a sure-fire formula, sending teams of two around the world to bicker and fret while completing various tasks in a planet-girdling marathon. Some are married, some engaged, some siblings, some pals. The romantic pairings are the most fun. Watching the internal dynamics of couples under stress can be appallingly fascinating.
Where, then, lies the fascination of The Newlyweds, starring young married pop stars Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson? Like The Osbournes, the show involves no prizes, no goals--just a glimpse into the lives of a wealthy musical family. There may be an element of Robin Leach-style voyeurism at work, but shows like The Newlyweds and The Osbournes live or die on the strength of their characters.

Newlyweds works. Simpson has received most of the attention for her ditzy remarks (asking her hubby whether Chicken of the Sea was chicken or tuna, then retreating into her standard half-embarrassed, half-defensive "Don't get mad at me!") But Lachey is definitely the star, even for those of us who don't crave his hunky bod. She's comic relief, but he's a sweetie. Not stupid, but not noticeably neurotic either. Doesn't overthink. Likes to move furniture. A guy's guy. Best of all he seems bemused by her, as opposed to screaming "What have I got myself into?" every five minutes.

Fear Factor? Afraid not

American Idol and CTV's Canadian Idol work best at their worst. Showing the most egregiously awful contestants may be cruel, but it's virtually the only interesting thing about these shows. Not only are the talent-free wannabees gruesomely entertaining, they shine a terrible light on the very phenomenon American Idol has helped create--the blind lust for fame, utterly divorced from any realistic concept of how one might achieve it. By providing a glimpse into the deluded psychology of modern youth, American/Canadian Idol performs a depressing sort of public service. Unfortunately the show then moves along to become merely a showcase for the misguided Whitney Houston-style caterwauling of insipid pop ballads. I'm outta there.

Finally, there is the inexplicably popular Fear Factor. I don't know what to say about that one. Fear Factor is the show that turns me into one of those people I hear at dinner parties: "Reality TV? It's just a load of crap."

Forced to Watch is a new occasional column at The Tyee about what's good and not on television, and widely published writer Steve Burgess is hogging the control.  [Tyee]

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