I am on record as a pro-reality guy. Whatever the failings of reality TV, they are more than matched by the tired conventions of most scripted programs (even prestige stuff like Law & Order). But just like scripted dramas, reality shows are not created equal. Human relationships form the core of the best ones. That's why my current fave is The Restaurant, Monday nights on NBC and Global and, starting in June, on Bravo. Global usually airs The Restaurant back-to-back with Fox's The Swan--a true crash course in the reality show spectrum. While The Swan is a horrifying, morbidly fascinating train wreck that, in time-honoured Fox fashion, forces us to examine the awful spectacles we sometimes consider entertainment, season two of The Restaurant is something else entirely--perhaps the closest reality TV has come to a genuine documentary series. The Restaurant, from Survivor mogul Mark Burnett, does not feature a contest or a competition. There are no eliminations or votes, marriage proposals or million dollar prizes. Just plenty of backstabbing and nasty, nasty politics. Unlike NBC's The Apprentice (another Burnett property), The Restaurant is not business-as-game-show. It's just business, which is worse. Last year, season one (which I missed) followed chef Rocco DiSpirito as he took on the challenge of opening a New York restaurant in just five weeks. The show documented the predictable problems along with DiSpirito's spirited battles with moneyman Jeffrey Chodorow. Edible business cards? This season, Rocco's on 22nd is up and running. Rocco is a celebrity, author, and major babe magnet. The restaurant is full. And Jeffrey is pissed. Somehow in the midst of all this popularity, DiSpirito is managing to lose money hand over fist. Ordering two dollar business cards certainly didn't help. Chodorow begins to move his own team into place and a major power struggle begins, with DiSpirito acting like a petulant child. Meanwhile waitresses glide in with fresh coffee, stay long enough to overhear snippets of the arguments, and rush back to report to the other staffers about what's going on. Chodorow's team includes major pains-in-the-butt like Drew, a snotty 20-year-old intern who claims "15 years in the business" and is convinced he can tell the grown-ups how to do their jobs. Recently in the Vancouver Sun, TV critic Alex Strachan described Chodorow as the show's major villain. I don't get that. Chodorow may not be loveable and his stooges are sometimes jerks, but he's got a point--popular restaurants ought to make money, big-headed chefs or no. Nobody in The Restaurant really comes off looking too great, although everybody loves Mama DiSpirito. Mama, of course, reserves her fiercest affection for her own, and casts a gimlet eye on the hated Chodorow. The complexity of the relationships and the lack of a simple, definable goal--open the restaurant, win a million, get the girl--may be contributing to a weak ratings performance so far. Season two is lagging well behind the numbers of season one. Too bad. This is reality TV as it ought to be. Believe it or not Beyond its surface drama, The Restaurant also embodies the major dilemma for reality show buffs--how much skepticism should we bring to what we see? There is a school of thought that reality TV is all lies, created in the editing booth. But that kind of undifferentiated cynicism is merely the flip side of naiveté. Editing cannot put words in people's mouths or make them do things they didn't do. The Restaurant, though, offers plenty of opportunity for narrative-shaping. The producers are fond of stringing together numerous examples of one person's behavior (such as the new Italian chef pestering Tony, the long-suffering sous chef) in order to emphasize a plotline. That sort of out-of-context montage is clearly open to abuse. Sure enough, the show's principal characters (including Drew the intern) have recently been taking to the airwaves to dispute the way they've been portrayed. Grains of salt are always handy when watching reality TV. Survivor has gotten rather predictable in its attempts to mislead viewers about who's going to get the boot (when Shi-Ann was recently shown racing around camp, cobbling together an anti-Jenna coalition, long-time Survivor buffs knew instantly that Jenna would be perfectly safe while Shi-Ann would soon be gone. We've all seen their tired editing tricks too often). But sussing out these bits of misdirection is simple enough. The main story is what counts. The Restaurant has a great one, and deserves an audience. People who rail against reality TV ought to appreciate a show that simply tells a human tale without asking half-starved contestants to eat bugs for money. The Swan gets ugly The Swan, on the other hand, is everything reality TV's critics despise. It takes the already creepy premise of ABC's Extreme Makeover--wallflowers undergoing massive surgical intervention and some fitness and fashion training to be re-born--and combines it with a beauty pageant. There's a lot of bogus chatter about how it's really all about inner beauty and learning to love yourself and being happy in your own skin. Then those newly re-affirmed and self-confident women are squashed by getting the boot from the pageant. Because, as we are breathlessly told, there can only be one--Swan! Plastic surgeons have raised loud objections to this and other makeover shows, pointing out that the number of operations, length of surgery and length of recovery are seriously distorted. Then there's the whole idea that self-esteem is merely a butt implant away. The Swan is indefensible. I don't watch it. Not really. I tape it. Then I fast forward to get to the big finish. Yes, I'm ashamed. Leave me alone. It's just that the big transformations are a real kick. Some of the contestants are genuinely unrecognizable. A friend of mine used to say that after awhile you get the face you deserve, and it would sure be interesting to see the same people a year or two later. But in the meantime we get to believe that the genetic lottery is subject to appeal. A Salon.com writer recently begged TV viewers to punish Fox for foisting this despicable trash upon us, to starve it of viewers and let it wither. Good advice. Excellent advice. It's a horrid show. I only tape it. Steve Burgess reviews TV and beyond for The Tyee, and writes for Macleans and other publications.