Minutes before the parade of bodies begins on "Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People" -- which premieres Thursday night on ABC -- our host, J.D. Roberto, announces, "This is the show that cuts to the chase."
After almost three years of watching people sitting around on a beach trying to cook rice, that sounds pretty intriguing.
"You are not going to hear any bad versions of Aretha Franklin songs," Roberto promises us. "You will not be forced to endure any mediocre stand-up comedy, because we don't care if you can dance, sing or tell jokes. All we wanna know is one thing: Are you hot?"
Not that a show featuring Lorenzo Lamas needs anything else to recommend it, but this is a good start, and expectations are running high: Finally, they'll strip away all the false pretenses! No dates, no camping, no trips around the world, no talent competitions, no Hawaiian getaways with former classmates or fellow has-beens. No fake earnestness, no weighty decisions to be made, no painting faces or mud-wrestling or bungee jumping or kneeling with rings. Just a steady flow of flesh and bones, trotted out for our arousal, our bemusement and our judgments.
Because if the last three years of reality TV have taught us one thing, it's that we don't really care that much about reality, or talent, or survival, or millionaires. Ultimately, we just want to point and jeer.
On that measure alone, "Are You Hot?" certainly excels. The entire show seems to consist of a stage, a gaggle of nubile young hotties from "Hot Zone 1: The Northeast", and three celebrity-ish judges: "Fashion designer to the stars" Randolph Duke, supermodel Rachel Hunter and "international heartthrob" Lorenzo Lamas.
In the spirit of cutting to the chase, seconds after we meet our judges, hot people begin to stride onto the stage, as a Moviefone-style voice introduces each one.
"A 19-year-old retail sales associate from Richfield, Minn. -- Ann Swancutt!"
A tall, pretty blonde swaggers toward us and stands beneath two lighted signs, vamping as she waits for the verdict.
Roberto growls, "What did the judges decide about Ann?"
The "Not" sign lights up.
"Not ... hot. Sorry, Ann. Goodbye."
Ann walks off quickly, looking disappointed.
Wait a second. Ann's not hot?
But there's no time to mourn Ann's passing, because there's a buff young whippersnapper strutting out behind her already, anxious for his chance to be sorted into the appropriate pile.
This dizzying snap-judgment round continues until we're left with eight men and eight women, all of whom are supernaturally hot. Still, it's not as exciting as it sounds; somehow, most of them only manage that bland sort of hotness you find in Sears catalog models and Hooters waitresses, instead of that disconcerting movie-star hotness that makes you weak in the knees, the hotness of your George Clooneys and your Penelope Cruzes.
Which is, of course, absurd. We're not a nation of George Clooneys, therefore we should be content to point and jeer at the perfectly attractive humans currently available for such a purpose, all of whom will be stripping down to bathing suits in the next round.
But it doesn't help that, instead of treating the bathing suit round with the campy obnoxiousness that it deserves, our judges seem hellbent on dissecting each contestant's fatal flaws with the self-seriousness of cancer surgeons.
The first finalist, a 25-year-old executive office manager from Pittsburgh named Melinda, comes out looking voluptuous but fit in a teensy bikini.
Designer-to-the-stars Randolph Duke quickly levels with her. "Listen, you're gonna need to firm that body up just a little bit. I know you guys like these voluptuous packages, but I saw a little too much jiggle. Could you turn around for me, Melinda?"
She turns, revealing a perfectly fit backside. The camera zooms in, but Duke is on to the next flaw.
"Who did the caps?" he barks.
Melinda stutters, "Actually, they were bonded by a cosmetic dentist in Atlanta?"
"Too big, gotta take 'em down." Duke pronounces. "I think the face is a 7.5, I deducted for the teeth, sorry. But you've got a sultry look. The body, I'm sorry, I gave her a 7.5, she needed to firm it up just a little bit. Overall sex appeal, though, a 9, she's a sexy woman."
The show continues like this, unbelievably, with each genetically blessed contestant standing half-naked on stage, nodding solemnly and appearing to take detailed mental notes on the valuable feedback he or she is given on "the body" and "the face" and how well he or she "sells it" or "owns it."
"There's just a little too much thigh there," Lamas tells one girl, with the condescending tone of a high school vice principal.
"You're too muscular," Hunter snaps at a young Fabio. "It's too ape ... gorilla-looking."
"You know what? You might have wanted to stuff those soft gels in your bra before you came out here," Duke says to a pretty, dark-haired girl.
"I want to be all real! All natural!" she shouts, but the crowd boos as the camera does an extreme close-up on her small breasts.
Later, Lamas instructs a tall blonde on how to stand. "Could you just put your legs together, put your heels together? Face me. Now put your heels together. I got a tip for you. Squeeze those thighs really tight."
He directs a green laser pointer at her inner thighs.
"You know, Carrie? You got a 9.5 on the body for me, because at some point between the hip and the knee, your legs have to touch." Says who? Is he consulting some kind of a reference book on hotness that only international heartthrobs know about? "There's just too big of a gap in there," he announces, with finality and regret.
Next, the heartthrob tells another woman, "I'm not feeling a lot of sexual energy. I think maybe it's because you might be a little nervous ..."
"I'm half-naked in front of this audience!" she replies, and it would be funny, except that it's tough not to feel downright queasy after watching one pretty young person after another receive grave instructions on how to shape their looks to conform to some arbitrary ideal.
And then it all starts to come back -- the perils of cutting to the chase, of skipping straight to the good stuff. Cutting to the chase is like sex without foreplay. It's like a week spent eating only burgers and shakes, or a movie with only action scenes and no plot. Cutting to the chase is like that time when you were 13 and you tried to eat a whole bag of those little powdered doughnuts, and you thought it was going to be this peak experience, and then you threw up all over your brand new shoes.
Sure enough, by the end of the show, darkness sets in, and what initially seemed like a dirty good time now seems not just cruel and shallow and sick but downright disturbing, a scary reflection of the times and possibly even a bad omen, like the smell of barbarian fires in the distance before the fall of Rome. The mood is so bleak that, by the time Roberto tells those who were cut, "I am very sorry, you are not hot enough to continue," it sounds like he's telling them they might as well just go ahead and end it all right now.
If these genetic demigods aren't hot enough to continue, clearly we flabby, snaggle-toothed viewers at home should've offed ourselves a long time ago. Ultimately, then, "Are You Hot?" is singular among reality shows in its ability to send the viewer from childlike glee to suicidal ideation in less than an hour.
Way to cut to the chase.