The other day, someone told me that reality TV is just the same thing, over and over again. That doesn't really deter me, though, since most of the stuff I like is just the same thing over and over: Crawling into bed at night. Melting cheese on top of stuff. Hanging out with my pet monkey -- er, I mean, my kid.
It's like watching "Law & Order" for the 50 millionth time. You sit through the repetitive stuff to get to the part that's truly surprising. In fact, as in marriage, child-rearing and everything else that's rewarding in life, the taxing, repetitive parts actually warm you up for the good stuff.
What strikes me the most when I watch reality shows is how often I see things that I've never seen before. This summer alone, I've watched a white guy with dreadlocks donning a captain's hat and speaking in an unintentional British accent, I've seen a gay real estate mogul instructing his assistant in what percentage of lemonade, Sprite and fruit punch he prefers in his beverage, I've seen a middle-aged rocker inflicting intentional psychological torture on his roommates, and I've watched surveillance-camera footage of a 45-year-old virgin attempting to pick up women.
Now, if there were brilliant comedies and dramas about faux-British, dreadlock-adorned white guys and high-maintenance gay real estate moguls and sociopathic middle-aged rockers and 45-year-old virgins, I'd be sure to tune in. But those shows don't exist. Instead, the TV scribes write comedies and dramas about superpowered heroes and troubled cops and yuppies with bad marriages. Or, if you're talking about this fall's new shows, superpowered cops with bad marriages. Are you excited to watch four female friends quipping about their sex lives over lunch at a fancy restaurant yet again? Are you looking forward to seeing yet another courtroom drama that ends when the brilliant lawyer gets the key witness to blurt out that he's guilty? If so, you're in luck.
Lather, rinse, repeat
If not, I'd keep my options open, because some of the most surprising, unpredictable and heartwarming moments can be found on reality shows. You just have to look past the dull hosts and repetitive elimination challenges, which are just window dressing for the inspired madness hidden therein.
Take "The Pick-Up Artist" (9 p.m. on VH1), which, at first glance, is just the sort of insipid trash that most of us habitually seek to avoid. The show aims to demonstrate the enormous powers of Erik von Markovik, aka Mystery, a former geek who has allegedly cracked the combination on America's panties. On the show, Mystery is charged with turning a gaggle of sexually frustrated nerds into smooth operators in a matter of weeks. The most successful transformation from AFC (Another Frustrated Chump) to PUA (Pick-Up Artist) wins $50,000 and a chance to join Mystery's crew of lady-wooing henchmen, known as Master PUAs.
Are you rolling your eyes yet? In any other country on the globe, Mystery's impressive way with women would make him that odd-looking guy who gets the girls for some unknown reason. But in America, his uncanny skills have become a franchise, landing him in men's magazines and newspapers, and snagging him tons of money. Only in America could a former D&D geek reinvent himself as the world's leading authority on the art of seduction.
By the time Mystery shows his face, our confusion knows no bounds: Fuzzy black hat, eyeliner, goggles inexplicably perched on his head -- Mystery looks like a dork dressed up as a pimp for Halloween. Even the stuttering, sweating, desperate gaggle of geeks look skeptical. Worse, Mystery has two extremely average-looking dudes with him, each dressed like contestants on "Rock Star" and preening around with such exaggerated swagger that the nervous dorks are starting to look appealingly genuine by comparison.
But then Mystery leads the guys to a local club that's been tricked out with several surveillance cameras. He instructs them to go into the club and hit on women while he and his evil henchmen watch from a van outside. The men exchange glances like they've just been told that they're going to be tethered to a side of beef and lowered into shark-infested waters.
OK, I shouldn't have to tell you that this is where I sat up very straight and clasped my hands together and giggled gleefully. Because no matter how stupid or sexist or pathetic the whole concept is, no matter how repetitive the comments ("I didn't know what was going to happen next!") are or how ridonkulous the elimination ceremony would probably be, that had nothing to do with the fact that we were now being treated to surveillance-camera footage of seriously awkward guys trying to hit on girls. (We're assured that none of the people in the bar are actors, and while they obviously signed something on the way in, they're pretty clearly unaware that they're being filmed.)
Oh, it was painful. Yes, indeed. When Spoon, a shy 27-year-old, got shot down by a girl who turned her back on him, it was almost unbearable to watch. Afterward, he cried big, salty tears over the shock of being rejected. He never tried to hit on a girl before, he said, so he didn't know how bad it would feel to be shut down. "It wasn't what I expected," he said.
Just when I could hardly stand to see another second, the geeks were called out of the club and invited to watch from the van as Mystery and his men tried their luck on the women inside. Striding into the bar in their dumb outfits, the three of them looked like serious jackasses. But Mystery only got a few feet into the bar, and a woman grabbed his goggles, and then, seconds later, told him that he was cool and she loved him.
OK, so she was a little drunk. But then Mystery moved on to another woman, got her interested, moved on, etc., and pretty soon the bar was filled with groups of people -- men and women -- trying to get his attention. Even his idiotic-looking henchmen were doing well, with lines custom-made to appeal to small groups of bored people two beers into yet another Saturday night on the town:
"You guys make the exact same facial expression."
"You look like the bad one out of the group, you look like the good one."
Once they got the group talking, the pickup artists would turn their shoulders as if they were about to leave. You wouldn't believe how animated and anxious the women in the groups became when the guys did this -- which really tells you how bored and desperate most marauding drinkers are, more than anything else.
But it worked. And as sick and pathetic as it is to have a game plan for getting laid, the guys on "The Pickup Artist" aren't focused on womanizing. They're trying to have a conversation with one woman. Half of them are virgins, and at least a third of them seem to have some kind of a panic attack in the presence of attractive women that's so debilitating, they can barely string a sentence together. In other words, these may be the most sympathetic set of characters ever to appear on TV.
And when they saw a lanky, pimped-out geek like Mystery attracting a bunch of women, they suddenly knew that there was hope for them -- which explains why the surveillance van kept erupting in applause and awed cheers and high-fives. "This guy is a genius! He's a diabolical genius!" one of the understudies gushed.
During the second episode, the guys learn a few tips from Mystery, then try them out on women at the club. Joe D., the guy you assume at the start is going to have the hardest time getting girls because he's overweight and severely dorky, gets a haircut and a funky outfit, then strides into the bar with a new spring in his step. He approaches a guy and a girl together, asks them a question about whether they'd let their partner hire a stripper for his or her bachelor party, then smiles and listens as they talk. About two minutes into the conversation, he turns his shoulders like he's about to move on, and both people lean toward him and try to get him to stay. Aww! Chumpy's got game after all!
"It's amazing how changing your clothes and having a game plan going into a situation can totally alter your perception of what's going on around you," he tells us with a big smile afterward.
I just can't believe we get to watch these sweet little frogs transformed into princes before our eyes! Needless to say, I love this show with a white-hot passion, and I strongly encourage you to watch it.
The devil wears nada
I would never encourage you to watch "Big Brother 8," of course, because it's repetitive and boring and, at three hours of airtime every week, constitutes a serious time drain with limited rewards. That said, there are one or two crucial weeks, in the middle of the show's run, that are particularly entertaining, as they almost always involve major, unexpected shifts in power, and this week was one of them. In the interest of saving you from wasting your time, let me summarize:
This year, one of the houseguests has been charged with fulfilling the viewers' wishes. Basically, viewers vote on who they want "America's Player" to try to get evicted from the house, and this houseguest, Eric (aka America's Player), has to follow their orders. I'm not sure what's in it for Eric -- the terms of his status haven't been revealed in the last three weeks, despite the fact that sleepwalking host Julie Chen has plenty of airtime to fill us in. But the America's Player twist is pretty great, mostly because America seems to hate America's Player.
Each week, instead of giving his housemates some idea that he was about to change his votes (because he had to do so), or setting forth some rationale to them, Eric has lied and pretended to vote with the group, thereby stirring the seeds of distrust among them. "Who voted against the group?" they wondered after each eviction.
But who cared? The next to go had to be Dick, a middle-aged rocker who's exchanged angry words with almost everyone else in the house. A few weeks ago, Dick started to go off the rails, clearly losing his mind over being trapped with a bunch of people who were so different from him. Dick wasn't just argumentative, mind you, he was ruthless, mocking the other houseguests for their religion, sexual orientation, drug-addled pasts, you name it. Suspecting that Eric was lying, Dick told Amber about how Eric had assured Dick a few weeks earlier that he had "dirt" on her, a confession she made to him about the bad behavior she indulged in when she was using drugs. And Dick ridiculed Jameka for believing that God had the free time to affect her outcome in the Head of Household competition.
In other words, Dick is exactly the sort of mean-spirited jerk you'd hate in real life, but who was born to showcase his arrogance while the cameras roll. America seems to agree: This week, when Eric's ally Dustin was nominated for eviction simply to warm the other chair, when the group's real target was Dick, America decreed that Eric should vote to get Dustin, not Dick, eliminated. So Eric had to campaign against his ally, Dustin, instead of his enemy, Dick, in order to justify the fact that he'd be voting to get Dustin evicted.
In case anyone has ever wondered why people watch "Big Brother 8" -- to get to know those nice people in the house, maybe? -- this week it became clear. Viewers may act like "fans" of the houseguests once it's all over, but the point here is to watch these people torture each other. If the viewers were at all protective of anyone in the house -- Jameka and Amber, for example, both of whom were regularly breaking down and crying after being called out by Dick -- they would've voted to evict Dick.
But no. Americans want the houseguests in their little human ant farm to suffer. Yes, that's right. Watching reality TV reminds us that America is filled with some seriously sick, nasty, ruthless people.
Which is probably why I enjoy it so much.
Flipper, Flipper! Faster than lightning!
But no reality show has surprised me more than "Flipping Out" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on Bravo). I just can't shut up about it, because it's easily one of the most entertaining shows on TV right now.
No, I'm not kidding. Last week, unhinged house flipper Jeff Lewis started off the episode by lecturing his assistants on why they shouldn't put their CDs into the CD player right before he shows his house to potential buyers. Then he described the disaster that occurred the night before, employing his usual flair for the dramatic:
"What I've got in the CD player is really mellow, soft kinda music, which is appropriate for a showing. The CD changes to 50 Cent. And that suddenly gets louder. So then, I find myself running to the CD player because I'm not sure what Fiddy is going to say next. And I'm concerned that he's going to start singing about his hos and having sex with them. To make a long story short, I don't want to party like it's my birthday, I want to sell my house."
"Flipping Out" achieves the high level of absurd comedy that every other reality show on TV strives for. Take the next scene, where Jeff has lunch with his business partner, Ryan. Ryan is also, inconveniently enough, Jeff's ex-boyfriend.
Jeff: So how's little baby Zoey?
Ryan: Her name is Chloe, and she's fine.
Jeff: I might want to get her name straight soon.
Ryan: You might want to try, yeah.
The look on Ryan's face when Jeff gets his baby's name wrong is priceless. There should be a laugh track for this show. Meanwhile, Ryan is explaining in a voice-over that he and Jeff are in "very different places" in their lives, meaning Ryan has a family and Jeff has ... Well, Jeff has a family of paid assistants and hired spiritual consultants.
What kind of a person can't remember the name of his own business partner's kid? Jeff Lewis is like a gay Larry David, and every other scene on this show feels like a real-life version of "The Larry Sanders Show" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Less is more
The only mistake that reality shows make these days, across the board, is that they're too long. It's time to return to the formula that worked for "The Osbournes" so long ago: Treat these shows like the half-hour comedic romps that they are. Forget the superfluous details.
We don't care about Head of Household competitions or elimination ceremonies. What we want is seriously strange people, thrown into challenging, unfamiliar situations, so we can watch as they lash out, cry or break into fake British accents.
Next week: A new documentary in which people with real British accents talk about what they hate about America, while we provide the laugh track and mumble, "They're just jealous."