My first kindergarten report card -- this was in the 1960s, when kindergarteners were not yet expected to compete for placement at Harvard -- consisted of just two columns, one headed "Excellent," the other "Needs Improvement." The neat row of check marks in the "Excellent" column proved that I had fully mastered shoe-tying, coloring and chalkboard erasing. In fact, I had earned an "Excellent" check mark in every category -- except for one. In the category "Works and Plays Well With Others," the teacher -- having taken note, I'm sure, of my extreme shyness, as well as perhaps a slight streak of brattiness -- had checked "Needs Improvement."
This blight on my otherwise-perfect record filled me with anguish and worry: Surely, I wasn't fit to live in the world of people. Whatever the problem was, I must have corrected it to the teacher's satisfaction, because I never got another "Needs Improvement" in that category again. But when I serendipitously started watching the CW reality show "Beauty and the Geek," last season, the significance of that one lonely check mark came floating back to me. This is the reality show for young men and women whose social skills are either nonexistent or so carefully waxed and polished that they reflect only their owners' shallowest qualities, blinding them to the surprising and sometimes wonderful messiness of real human beings. This is the show for people who need improvement in the "Works and Plays Well With Others" department -- which can apply to viewers as well as to contestants.
"Beauty and the Geek," whose third season will end with tonight's episode, isn't a dating show: Its aim isn't to foster romantic pairings, although sometimes that does end up happening. Executive-produced by Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg -- both of whom are also behind "Punk'd," a show that celebrates the modern-day practical joke as a form of crude folk art -- "Beauty and the Geek" pairs off eight "beauties" (good-looking young women who prefer lying on a tanning bed to cracking a book) with eight "geeks" (guys who could bring a crashed hard drive back from the dead but who wouldn't know a tube of Neutrogena after-shave balm even if it beamed itself down from Romulus). At the beginning of the season, each beauty chooses her geek, sight unseen: The women are seated in a room with their backs to the guys, who enter one by one and attempt to make themselves as attractive as possible with their vast stores of knowledge and sometimes less-robust stockpiles of wit -- an awkward mating dance that reflects the propensity, found everywhere in the natural world, for the male of the species to show off in order to impress the female.
Once a woman has chosen her partner (the two are stuck with each other for the season, for better and sometimes for worse), the eight teams, all of whom are holed up in a luxe West Coast mansion, proceed to compete against one another in a series of potentially humiliating tasks designed to target their respective weak spots. In one episode, each team was given a loaner dog. The beauties were asked to build a doghouse from a small heap of materials and tools placed in front of them, while the geeks were sent out to a nearby park, their temporary pets in tow, to see how many phone numbers they could collect from passing women. Sometimes the tasks require physical teamwork and tandem concentration, as when the contestants were dropped off on a farm and instructed to move several surprisingly heavy bales of hay from here to there -- as much a challenge for skinny, bookish boys as for well-manicured girly-girls.
The proceedings are overseen by host Mike Richards, a benign, calming presence who never passes judgment on either the physical or mental clumsiness of the contestants, although he occasionally finds it hard to suppress a bemused smile. (Richards has hosted for the past two seasons; Bryan McFayden was the host for Season 1.) Over the course of seven episodes, the contestants ideally should get to know each other as people, not as types, and learn to recognize that all human beings have their insecurities. And in the end, their confidence should get a boost, too: The guys get makeovers (to a person, they all look much better "after" than "before," with the simple addition of better-fitting clothes and a few grooming tips), and they learn to think of their intelligence as a benefit, not a liability, when it comes to attracting women. And the women, who have too often been allowed to coast on their looks, recognize that they're able to think for themselves -- and, ideally, they learn that the best way to meet a nice guy is to give the quiet, shy ones a chance.
OK, so there's also a cash prize of $250,000, to be split by the winning team. And there's an elimination process in which emcee Richards asks a series of questions that the contestants must answer correctly to stay in the game -- although even then, Richards always effects a reasonably believable façade of regret when he has to ask a losing team to "leave the mansion."
But what sets "Beauty and the Geek" apart from other reality shows -- particularly the dating shows -- is its marked lack of sadism and smirkiness. I confess I've never been able to watch reality dating shows beyond a few minutes caught on the fly. In the bits I've caught while channel-surfing, I've seen displays of phony emotion cranked up for the camera, and occasional glimpses of human beings who were genuinely disappointed, neither of which I can take pleasure in watching. Most shows seem to be fashioned around some prolonged scheme in which the race to find out who's going to be rejected and how is slow and excruciating. Some shows, like Lifetime's "Gay, Straight or Taken" (in which a woman contestant has to figure out which of three guys is suitable, available date material) and MTV's "Exposed" (in which dating candidates' voices are analyzed with lie-detector software), involve painfully belabored gimmicks. Some people may find these shows fun, or at least addictive. But elaborately manufactured deceptions, in the context of so-called reality, just don't do it for me.
But even if "Beauty and the Geek" sometimes does suffer, as other reality shows do, from delusions of grandeur (early on, the show was sold by its creators as "the ultimate social experiment"), it's so sweet-natured that it somehow feels less contrived than other reality shows. You find yourself wanting to believe in the contestants' capacity for transformation; to see them fall brings no real pleasure -- although when certain annoying, intractable or even possibly devious contestants are eliminated, it's completely natural to feel at least a flash of relief.
So now, at the very end of Season 3, we're left with two teams duking it out for the prize: Megan Hauserman, "Playboy Model," and Alan "Scooter" Zackheim, "Harvard Graduate"; and Cecille Gahr, "Bikini Model," and Nate Dern, "Singer: Star Wars Band." Those convenient identifying handles, bestowed on the contestants in the first episode, may be the show's own mischievous nod to the way we size people up and categorize them before we even know them.
In the course of the previous episodes, we've lost some contestants who didn't seem to be catching the transformation wave quickly enough, like the clueless Piao Sam ("Only Kissed One Girl"), who was overly obsessed with, you know, boobies. (It's OK to be obsessed with them, but there's no need to wear a sign around your neck advertising it.) Other contestants had so much unforced charm and charisma that it hurt to see them go: Everyone in the house -- and, I suspect, everyone watching at home -- liked the funny, articulate Mario Muscar ("Owns 25,000 Comics"), who also had the most elegant carriage of all the guys. By the time he was eliminated, he seemed completely comfortable with who he is and how he looks, which pretty much embodies the ethos of the show. (Post-makeover, he earned extra points from me for his stylin' two-tone shoes.)
The big drag is that the women on this season's "Beauty and the Geek" -- with a few exceptions -- seem more spoiled, and less open to change, than last season's contestants. Early in the season, the show's five blondes huddled into a little clique, united against the dark-haired girls, a bit of junior-high behavior that didn't dissolve quickly enough. One of the brunettes, Andrea Ciliberti ("Beauty Pageant Queen"), was eliminated in an early round -- disappointing, because I suspect she was one of the sharpest of the women.
And in an example of one of the grave injustices that can come to pass on a reality show, Cecille the Bikini Model -- also known as CeCe -- has survived as a finalist. This, after laughing at one of the male contestants because he cried during an emotional moment; after overtly bullying contestants whom she felt had wronged her; after forcing a stack of glitter bracelets over the head of her little Chihuahua loaner dog. (Her partner, the ever-sensible and perhaps overly patient Nate, quickly stepped in and freed the poor animal from any potential discomfort, not to mention fashion-victim hell.)
Fans of the show who post to various boards online have shared their suspicions that CeCe was chosen as a contestant specifically for her flamboyant self-centeredness and have suggested -- rightly, I think -- that if that choice was intentional, it's a betrayal of the show's premise. CeCe hasn't learned anything during the course of the show, and she doesn't care. When she's trying to get something she wants, she still turns on her manipulative, little-girl pout, refusing to acknowledge that no one on the show finds it cute. In the first episodes she made a great show of flirting with various geeks, cuddling and stroking them (and applying makeup to one) as if they were her little pets, only to declare, practically right into the camera, that she certainly wasn't "going to do anything with them" -- as if it were simply obvious that they weren't worthy of her.
As far as I'm concerned, the game is over for Cecille: The only thing that keeps her team interesting is the presence of the calm, stable and dryly funny Nate. And much as many viewers would probably like to see Nate win, they want to see Cecille lose much more. If she does win, it would be akin to watching the Wicked Witch of the West eat Toto. Luckily, the solid and reliable Scooter and the ditsy but weirdly grounded Megan aren't going to be an easy team to beat.
Megan hasn't been an easy contestant to warm up to. In her introductory on-camera interview, this overly tan, overly blond cutie-pie admitted, with an annoying giggle, that she's never read a book. But Megan has grown on me, starting, maybe, with the episode in which she had to build that doghouse. (Her nicely constructed doggie abode, judged by a professional carpenter, won the competition.) I had begun to lose count of all the dumb things that had slipped from between this woman's ever-smiling lips. And then suddenly she explained, with genuine thoughtfulness, that even though she often has a hard time expressing herself in words, if she's just left alone to do something, she can usually figure it out. I may not be inclined to like, or even understand, someone who's never read a book. But I'm not sure I could have built a better doghouse.
And this season, two contestants did spark a romance (although, apparently, it hasn't survived -- on their respective MySpace pages, both contestants have listed their status as "single"). Finalist Nate and "U.F.C. Ring Girl" Jennylee Berns (that "U.F.C." stands for "Ultimate Fighting Championship") developed mutual crushes fairly early on, even though their attraction to each other wasn't immediately obvious. Jennylee wasn't one of the show's more interesting contestants -- if anything, she was difficult to read, and in one confrontation with a fellow contestant, she was as judgmental and narrow as any of the other girls.
But her attraction to Nate -- she confessed to having a crush on him even before he had his makeover, when he was still sporting the high-tech mountain-man look -- suggests that perhaps more than any of this season's other beauties, she really has learned what it means to look beneath the surface. In the season's first episode, Piao explained what it was like to see all the beauties for the first time, as they paraded into the mansion in their short shorts and tank tops, flashing their oft-rehearsed smiles and tossing their shimmery manes. "They all looked so shiny!" he said, as if he'd been lulled into a state of stupefied amazement, dazzled beyond any sense of reason. A beautiful woman, or a beautiful guy, can do that to you. But your mother was right when she told you that inner beauty is what really counts. Recognizing that is the only way to feel at home in your skin, and in the world.