Strangers in paradise

At Fox's "Paradise Hotel," dimwitted booze hounds check in ... but they don't check out! And it might be the best reality show disaster on TV.

Published August 2, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

While most normal, sane human beings loathe reality TV and see this as a low point in our cultural history, I feel lucky to bear witness to such a pivotal time in televised entertainment. Right now, we're in that precious pocket between the invention of a new genre and the point at which that genre is standardized into bland uniformity. Soon, unpredictably awful reality TV will be a thing of the past, and those who pooh-poohed it will look back with nostalgia and longing, the way we now look back on discotheques, bad perms and Shaun Cassidy iron-on T-shirts. Sure, we thought "Herbie, the Love Bug" was corny when we were little kids, but who doesn't long for the days when the hit movie of the summer starred a compact car?

At this extraordinary juncture in reality TV's short history, one show stands out among the others. Yes, one show perfectly captures that fleeting pop cultural moment, that rare glimpse at the unearthly underbelly of the American psyche, an amalgamation of sights and sounds that bemuse and bewilder and enfeeble the mind, a moment when time stands still just long enough for you to say, "Sweet Jesus this is bad." "Paradise Hotel" is the quintessential winning failure, the crowning disaster, the Hindenburg of untested reality formulas.

But who knew that a concept so simple -- lure unsuspecting, mildly attractive morons into a lush setting, serve them an endless supply of TGI Fridays-style fruity alcoholic beverages, and leave the cameras running around the clock -- could bring about two scintillating hours of tragicomedy per week?

You really have to hand it to the producers of this show, though. Instead of calling it "Drunk Asshole Hotel," which might have raised a few red flags, even among the pea-brained flesh monkeys chosen to appear, they selected the wildly deceptive title "Paradise Hotel," cleverly obscuring the show's true thrust and emphasizing the paradise part. Like convincing a little kid that liver tastes just like chocolate, the host keeps braying about paradise: how great it is in paradise, how they're staying at the most exotic and exclusive hotel in the world and how, if they're not careful they'll get kicked out of paradise ... forever! Oh no! The tanned cretins get bug-eyed and jittery, pawing at the earth, rolling their sad eyes at the sky and gnashing their teeth ...

Look how relaxing paradise is! Even though being trapped in a small space with a collection of people almost as stupid as you are while your catastrophically dimwitted interactions are broadcast to a jeering nation could hardly be considered anything but purgatory, it doesn't matter. The amazing thing about people this shallow is that, as long as the piña coladas are flowing and the sun is shining, no one seems to care about the cameras, and no one wants to leave. What are they supposed to do? Who knows? What's the prize? There is no prize! Who the hell cares? It's paradise, damn it! The chick with the Australian accent just said so again!

Oh, but when the ax falls and someone is kicked out of paradise, that's when paradise gets very sad and circumspect. That's when the natives of paradise sigh deeply and pick at their manicures. Last week, when newcomer Tara chose Beau, casting Amanda out of paradise (forever), the mood was more solemn than the last scene of "Saving Private Ryan" when Tom Hanks' bottom lip starts to quiver and then he collapses and Matt Damon vows to honor his death by living well and doing only high-quality independent movies instead of crappy commercial ones like Ben Affleck does.

Host: (grasping both of Amanda's hands) Ooohh, Amanda, this is very difficult for everybody here tonight. How do you feel?

Amanda: (through tears) It might be more difficult for some of those people than me right now. (bravely) I, I'm ready to go home.

Host: You are?

Amanda: (high-pitched, through tears) Yeah.

Host: Is there anything you want to say to the guys tonight?

Amanda: Um ... You guys have taught me a lot about myself, and, um, about growing with people. Tara? No hard feelings, no hard feelings.

Beau: (through tears) Good for you!

Amanda: Beau? Thank you for all your support, all the talks, all the love.

Beau: (weeping) We'll have more!

Poor confused, emotional Beau! Once the very heart and soul of paradise, he's been split in two by his love for Amanda! First Amanda seemed to really like him -- she said her mom would think he was adorable, didn't she? But that must have been the kiss of death for poor Beau, because the next thing you know, Amanda's saying they're just friends, and then she starts flirting with Alex, then she kissed Zack, then her ex-boyfriend visited and she really seemed to love him, even though he was all butt-white and sober. You see, the natives of paradise are suspicious of outsiders, with their strange pale skin and oddly unhistrionic way of speaking. Why did Amanda disappear with a guy she'd known for years, they asked themselves, instead of spending time with us, her true friends of a few weeks? Her actions shook the very foundations of paradise! Beau was heartbroken! Kristin complained, "We never saw you, for two days!" Even so, Amanda let her ex-boyfriend leave without her, because damn it, this is paradise we're talking about!

But, like they always say, paradise hath no fury like a pretty boy scorned. Scraping his damaged ego off the concrete, Beau inadvertently turned the others against Amanda. Which was fine, because they were looking for someone to turn against anyway. They had a lot of extra energy left over, even after all the drinking and frolicking in the pool, and they had a lot of pent-up aggression to vent since no one was really getting laid, except for Zack and Amy.

Oh, the tragic love of those star-crossed lovers, Zack and Amy! Remember that fateful day, when Amy picked Zack, and Zack sulked and told her that frankly, he thought he could've done way better? What a hopeless romantic he was! Remember how magical it was, back when Amy would pay attention to someone else, and Zack would pout and puff out his chest and grumble that he was a lot hotter than all of the other guys, and smarter than them, too, because "I got lawyer in me"? Remember how he did clandestine push-ups in front of the bathroom mirror, to pump up his meaty man titties? Zack was a tragic figure from the start, and when newcomer Keith chose Amy, casting Zack and Amy's love asunder, well, it was just like that day when Zack's mother dropped him off at the Piggly Wiggly and never came back.

Paradise! Breathtaking, unforgettable! And let's not forget Toni, the Billy Bob Thornton of reality TV. Having appeared on both "Blind Date" and "Love Cruise," as well as playing starting linebacker for the Chicago Bears, Toni is well-versed in the art of battle. She's mastered all of the mainstays of good reality drama: the ultimatum, the threat, the finger shake, the "you mess with my friends, you're messin' with me" social time bomb, the walk off in a huff, the make out then cry, and so on. "I want you gone!" she bellows at Dave. "You never talk to me like that! My parents don't, you don't!" she growls at Beau. Toni's bombast knows no bounds, and everyone in paradise is flinchy and soft-spoken in her presence.

But best of all is Toni's understated way of handling difficulty. After choosing Scott as her roommate because she "feels safe" and "bonds" with him, she adds, "And if it means I lose my position tonight, then ... I was never meant to be." While it's been clear for weeks that Toni was never meant to be, the producers are surely thrilled that she equates getting kicked off the show with death.

What other reality show could muster up such existential crises, forcing its stars to peer into the abyss and confront their own mortality and the meaninglessness of human existence? And what other network but Fox would send Dave, a moderately intelligent, mildly unattractive man, into the pits of moron hell, then titter gleefully as he's confronted by the village idiots for implying that he's smarter than them. "You put us all down, and I'm calling bullshit!" snaps Toni. "You hurt my friends, we're gonna fight." Dave tries desperately to defend himself.

Dave: "While I do value my intelligence, and I think of myself as a very smart person ..."

Zack: "Not smarter than me!"

Amy is clearly stifling a laugh.

Zack: "Don't put me down, 'cause I'm ... You have no street smarts, A, and number two is ... game on, cuz!"

Experiencing the lawyer in Zack really makes your head spin, doesn't it? I'm just grateful I don't have to face such an eloquent proponent in court.

And where else but paradise would Charla be shunned? Charla, who's not only beautiful -- not in the cheesy, overly tan, bubble-butted way that the other girls are, but downright stunning -- but also knows better than to get wasted and freak out around the clock. Charla, who has the audacity to stay indoors and read instead of frying her skin and splashing around in the pool with unstable half-wits. Sadly, even Charla has been poisoned by the thrills and spills of paradise: "It's bad for you," she says one day at breakfast, "but you don't want to leave."

And even in the growing confusion of this tumultuous, corrosive Fox-sponsored bubble, who could have predicted that everything would explode into a dazzling burst of passionate head-cocking and lip gloss? Newcomer Keith, who's great looking, relatively sane, and an outsider, and therefore offends the senses of those in paradise, wisely chose Zack, who's about as fun as an enraged, brain-damaged pit bull, to leave. Amy, ever loyal to her man, didn't just cry and wail and stomp her feet, she let loose a bitter Jerry-Springer-worthy tirade on Keith, telling him what was what, getting all up in his face and shit, etc., etc. "We will make your time here a living nightmare," she pledged.

"Do you think you scare me?" Keith said, befuddled by the strange customs of the women of paradise.

"I don't scare you," Amy spat, "but you know what? When you have no friends, and you have no trust, and you're not respected here, you will want to get out of here." Ah yes. Earning the respect of your peers is an important part of the culture of paradise.

"We'll see," Keith answered.

"We will see," Amy shot back.

"We will see."

"We will."

Remember, kids, there's no prize, at least not one that they've announced. Amy is ripping Keith a new asshole simply because this is paradise, and she's staying at at the most exclusive hotel in the world, and never, not in a million years, did she imagine that Zack would be cast out of paradise ... forever.

But then, Amy is concerned only with the here and now, and remains unaware of the show's obvious mind-blowing cultural significance and the stigma it carries. Keith, on the other hand, seems to sense just how doomed the inhabitants of paradise are. Unfortunately, he only manages to blurt out that they're acting like a bunch of 2-year-olds before he settles into a dumbfounded silence.

You want him to say, "Um, I've seen you guys on TV, and it's pretty pathetic."

You want him to say, "Your lives are not going to be fun from now on, because this is either one of the most fantastically juvenile train wrecks the small screen has ever seen, or, if we're less lucky, it marks a significant step in the devolution of the human species."

"Yet, ah! why should they know their fate, Since sorrow never comes too late, And happiness too swiftly flies? Thought would destroy their paradise."

-- Thomas Gray

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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