It's Branson Vs. Trump as Centuries Clash

Two new reality shows invade; our intrepid correspondent succumbs.

By Steve Burgess 22 Nov 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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The next wave of reality shows is here. Unlike the D-day invasion, things get harder for each succeeding wave. Latest up: Regency House Party on PBS, and The Rebel Billionaire from Fox, starring British airline mogul Richard Branson.

Branson’s show has a particularly tough bit of beach to conquer. Already this season, ABC’s The Benefactor has gone down in flames, dismissed as an Apprentice-come-lately. Donald Trump is clearly Branson’s nemesis as well. Like The Apprentice, The Rebel Billionaire features a group of comers competing for a top job in the Branson empire. Even the suspenseful music sounds eerily similar. Branson is clearly playing John “Cougar” Mellencamp to Trump’s Bruce Springsteen, or Battlestar Galactica to Trump’s Star Wars, to mention only two unhip metaphors.

That’s why The Rebel Billionaire got off to such a lovely start. With the group of wannabee tycoons gathered at a lawn party to meet their new god, a stretch limo pulled up, followed by a taxi. Out of the limo stepped — Donald Trump. A puffy replica anyway, complete with the infamous Trump hair.

Then Branson emerged, grinning, from the taxi. Instantly it was clear that this show would have a sense of humour and personality — namely Branson’s. The next revelation promised even more. It turned out that the humble cab driver who had shuttled the contestants to the mansion had been Branson himself, elaborately disguised in order to spy on his new charges and find out how they treat the little people. Minutes into the program and already the contrast with Trump was clear. Branson was demonstrating what a show like this can be if the central figure is more than just a bloviating shyster with a catch phrase.

Credibility gap actually widens

In keeping with Branson’s balloon-riding, stunt-guy image, the contestants were put through some truly dizzying and inventive tasks such as aerial wing-walking and crossing a beam between two hot-air balloons at 10,000 feet. What any of this had to do with running a business is anybody’s guess.

Which brings up the other difficulty with this undeniably entertaining show—its somewhat incredible concept. Branson claims that the winner will receive not just a top-level job, but Branson’s job. He is promising to step aside for the winner (although the contestants have not been told this).

To say that this strains credulity is putting it lightly. A recent story in Salon magazine followed the casting process for The Rebel Billionaire, and it comes as no surprise that the contestants appear to have been selected for their telegenic qualities rather than their business sense. Viewers of The Apprentice already know the very tenuous connection between victory on these programs and any actual ability. If anything, The Apprentice seems designed to highlight the thoroughly random nature of capitalist success (look no further than the host). Bill Rancic, winner of the first Apprentice series, appears to have been given a key position representing Trump at beauty pageants and wine tastings.

Branson seems like a very clever, very perceptive guy. The idea that he will turn his empire over to whichever contestant performs the bitchin’-est bungee jump off a bridge seems highly improbable. But while I wait for the other shoe to drop, I think I’ll give this one a shot. So far, it’s fun.

What comes after Hawaii 5-O?

Reality show and PBS—the two ought not go together. It seems a little pathetic, like Mom and Dad greeting you with “Yo, ’sup dawg?”

But last week I got caught in the post-midnight television wasteland. Hawaii 5-0 was finished on Channel 8, and my frantic channel-hopping was revealing only bikini babes with phone numbers hovering over their privates. Then I stumbled on a rebroadcast of Regency House Party on WTVS Detroit (I had grazed far up the dial in search of young grasses and tender shoots).

It appeared to be just what you’d expect from a PBS reality show—Big Brother by way of Masterpiece Theatre. A group of 10 regular Brits, plus attendants, chaperones, and various functionaries, spend two months at a country manor playing assigned roles that place them in the English society of the Regency, which is to say 1811-1820 (the period when the Prince of Wales acted as regent for his nutso dad, the King). It was the age of Lord Byron and Beau Brummel and lurid Gothic novels that gave vent to suppressed desire.

It’s not easy being demure

The participants in Regency House Party are expected to behave in ways appropriate to that age. More importantly for the female participants, they are expected not to behave in ways inappropriate to the age. Which means they can do hardly nothing but fan themselves, and even that is governed by a strict set of fan-holding rules designed to send proper signals to potential suitors.

Potential suitors are the whole game for Regency women. Marriage is the only decent career available. Each of the women is accompanied by a chaperone who acts as romantic manager and agent, attempting to negotiate mergers (even while flirting with their own dalliances). Chaperones are essential. On one occasion a chaperone does not feel well enough to leave her room, and her young charge is horrified to learn that she is trapped in the same bedroom all day as a result. She cannot go about on her own.

The 10 participants are told to play the historically appropriate game, and their behavior is judged by that yardstick. But they are of course modern men and women, and tend to act out as such.

Modern Brits struggle so

Regency House Party is an odd duck. The participants may be role playing, but they are also real people seeking relationships and squabbling with each other. Imagine a production of Pride and Prejudice in which the actors play Jane Austen’s characters while simultaneously playing themselves. So is it a period study, or a dating show? Are the participants willing to play by the rules, or are they spoiling the concept by throwing tantrums? It seems constantly in danger of descending into a silly costume party where everybody just wants to go home.

But it grew on me. Perhaps it was the lack of Hawaii 5-0 talking, but Regency House Party genuinely shed light on early 19th century mores precisely because the modern Brits were struggling so badly with them. We’d all like to think that, transplanted to an earlier age when women were chattel, we would be the enlightened souls who saw through to the eternal truth of human equality. But it’s not so easy to shirk off one’s raising. Even as great a man as President Abraham Lincoln once mused to a visiting black delegation that it might be best if American blacks returned en masse to Africa. We are all to some extent the prisoners of our time, and it’s instructive to watch early 21st century sensibilities run up against those of the early19th.

Hawaii 5-0’s Steve McGarrett also sheds considerable light on the Cold War mentality of 1960s American law enforcement. More on that next time I’m really bored at 12:30 a.m.

Steve Burgess still watches way too much television for The Tyee. The Rebel Billionaire airs on Fox Tuesdays at 8; Regency House Party airs on KCTS Wednesdays at 9, or WTVS at 6.

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