Screen Savors: Reality bites

Only a few reality shows manage to fit a little content around the humiliation.

hannah brown 88 (photo credit: )
hannah brown 88
(photo credit: )
They say real life is just like high school, but with money. In that case, reality TV is high school with money and a camera. Anyone who watches these shows knows that the real draw is humiliation, that wonderful satisfaction that comes only when viewing another's shame. These shows remind me of the opening sequence of Fellini's Satyricon, a film set in ancient Rome. There's a kind of a street fair, and a crowd gathers to watch a beggar's arm being amputated. At that moment, you either watch, fascinated, or walk out of the theater. Given the ratings that reality shows get, obviously many people are choosing to watch fascinated. For all my misgivings, I can't blame them; I've watched quite a few myself. There are so many different kinds of humiliations on display on these shows, those who have an appetite for this sort of fare can pick and choose what works best for their psyche. Those who've had weight problems will be drawn to The Biggest Loser, of course. I saw part of one episode on what was billed as a celebrity version of the show (I didn't recognize any of the celebrities, except for one guy who had a small role on The Sopranos). At the end, the teams get on one of those scales with two sides that have to balance, to see which weighed more. That was almost as gruesome as watching an arm chopped off without anesthesia, although all the contestants seemed to take it rather well. Even crueler in a way are the shows that play on the fear of romantic humiliation. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are the ones that come to mind, in which a bevy of beauties or hunks, as the case may be, vie for the attentions of one person. You can watch and imagine yourself as the rejecter or the reject-ee, depending on your mood. On the versions I've seen, all those trying to win the affections of the chosen one were extremely attractive, so there is a grim satisfaction in seeing these gorgeous guys and girls handed a flower and being told, "That was a great date, thanks, but you can go now." Then you get to see what kind of losers they are: sobbing and bitter ("He didn't get a chance to see what I'm really like") or artificially sweet ("He's a great guy and it was a really good experience" - yeah, right). The two shows I've watched that manage to fit a little content around the humiliation are The Cut (4:15 p.m. Saturday on HOT 3/YES Stars 3) and Project Runway (7:35 p.m. Friday on HOT 3/YES Stars 3), two fashion-designer reality shows. The Cut is hosted by sportswear designer Tommy Hilfiger and isn't only about fashion, but also about acquiring the social skills you need to be a designer. The show goes about this in creative, if sometimes bizarre, ways. For example, on a recent episode, contestants in pairs had to lug around bulky mannequins and get passersby to donate or sell their clothes and shoes (in New York during the winter!). Then, each team had a brief time to make outfits for the mannequins out of these found articles. You would have thought no one would give them anything, but they actually did quite well and it was one of those rare moments when being on camera brought out the best in some people (the surprisingly generous passersby). Project Runway is a show hosted by Victoria's Secret model Heidi Klum. The aspiring designers get specific assignments and then are rated on the quality of the outfits they've made. On one show, they had to make outfits out of materials found in their apartments and one woman made a very nice coat out of a white shag rug (did she really just happen to have that lying around?). This show, in which each assignment is judged by a group of famous designers and fashion magazine editors, gives a clue about how the fashion industry really works, with the judges critiquing each outfit in detail. Maybe I've seen too many Holocaust documentaries, though, because when the Teutonic Klum says in her heavily accented English, "The rest of you can go," to the losing designers, I always think of concentration camp selections. That's not fair to Heidi; she's no Nazi, of course - she's married to Seal, the British pop singer of Nigerian descent. Some kind of prize in post-modernism should go to The Comeback (YES Stars 1 weeknights at 10:45 p.m.), a parody of reality shows starring Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe from Friends) as an aging sitcom actress trying to make a comeback and making a reality show about her situation. OK, so it's fiction, but it's thinly veiled fiction and actually quite painful to sit through, although often funny. Anyway, one obvious truth that these shows prove over and over is that it's a lot more fun to watch someone else's arm get amputated than it is to have it happen to you.