brucekluger.com

    Arrive Magazine, November-December 2003

    Final Stop:
    Get Real!
    Enough already with all this alternate-reality programming. It's time for a
    show that really tells it like it is.

    By Bruce Kluger


    Used to be, TV was an escape from
    reality. During my childhood especially,
    there was nothing like tossing off the
    weighty affairs of the day (school, my
    latest crush, completing my Batman
    card collection) and settling in at the
    tube to watch a shapely genie zap in
    and out of her bottle, or a secret
    agent talk into his shoe.

    But that was then and this is now.

    When Survivor debuted in 2000, America was captivated by the notion of real live
    people playing Robinson (and Roberta) Crusoe on a real live island. At the end of
    the day, the contestants’ victorieswhether in the art of endurance or the craft of
    craftinesswere somehow ours.

    Over time, however, viewer fascination in reality programming has dimmed, as the
    shows grow more absurd and less, well, real. I mean, who can relate to Fear
    Factor's eating segments, in which a contestant can actually win $100,000 for
    ingesting reindeer testicles? For the past 46 years, I’ve been forced to swallow my
    aunt’s Christmas soup (ingredients unknown) and, so far, no one’s forked over so
    much as a dime.

    Yet Donald Trump may have saved the day. For his new show, The Apprentice,
    rather than gathering a bunch of beautiful people to duke it out in paradise, he’s
    taken a more realistic tack, hiring a pack of MBA-laden wannabes, putting them
    through the corporate wringer, then firing one of them every week. Only one
    contestant walks away with a six-figure salary. Now that’s what I call reality.

    Keeping this in mind, maybe we’ll see some more cutting-edge reality programming
    on TV this season. Happy viewing.

    Who Wants to Marry a Loser? Good looks and big bucks count for nothing in this
    edge-of-your-seat matchmaking game for “the least desirable dude on the planet.”
    First-week contestant, Rowena Mittleman of Baltimore, Maryland, couldn’t ask for
    anything moreuh, less—when she selects as her life-partner an unemployed
    toupee model who still lives with his mom. The couple’s honeymoon destination? A
    pot-luck dinner in the parking lot of Chuckie Cheese.

    Trading Trailers: Goodbye Ethan Allen, hello Walmart. This blue-collar knockoff of
    the popular Trading Places series—in which neighboring homeowners swap
    abodes, then redecorate—is an instant hit in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where
    thousands of trailer-dwellers catch the show each week via satellite dish. The fifth
    episode, however, ends in dispute, when trailer-trader Doris Fagan is so enraged
    that her neighbor, Selma, threw out her Chia Pet collection, she retaliates by
    barbecuing Selma’s mudflaps. Although the show is immediately cancelled, the two
    women go on to appear on Judge Judy, Celebrity Boxing and The Jerry Springer
    Show.

    Smear Factor: Dubbed “the first TV show in history to celebrate dissing your loved
    ones behind their back!” this wacky free-for-all allows contestants to secretly listen
    in as family and friends dish the dirt about them. In the first episode, Carl Jacoby of
    Wilmington, Delaware, nearly walks off with the grand prize when he overhears his
    golfing partner critique his game (“The guy putts like a putz”). But New Yorker Julie
    Bettman is pronounced the big champ when she’s shown a clip of her wedding
    video, which reveals her Maid of Honor whispering to a fellow bridesmaid: “She calls
    that a wedding dress? It looks more like a drop cloth.”

    The Weakest Shrink: Combining all the excitement of American Gladiator with the
    smarts of a Discovery channel documentary on Sigmund Freud, this “mind-bending
    elimination game” pits the nation’s leading psychoanalysts against one another in a
    thrilling battery of athletic competitions. The season’s first winner—Dr. Elias
    Spitsburg of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—successfully dispatches his scrawnier
    rivals in the final episode by lifting his 600-pound analyst’s couch over his head
    with the patient still on it. The season ends in scandal, however, when Spitsburg’s
    million-dollar winner’s check bounces. Turns out the network’s HMO doesn’t cover
    psychotherapy.

    Three Supermodels, Two Gay Men and Bill O'Reilly: This creative attempt to
    borrow from three popular hits—the E! Channel’s Wild On series, Bravo's Queer
    Eye for the Straight Guy, and the Fox News Network’s The O’Reilly Factorgathers
    together a disparate group of cultural icons in the hopes of watching sparks fly. No
    such luck. The show is abruptly cancelled in the middle of the first episode when
    programmers discover that the contestants really don’t have anything to say to one
    another.