OpEd Columns

Few Average Joes In Reality TV
(Indianapolis Star 8/30/03)

With the fall network schedule commencing soon, it's time to say goodbye to the plague of summer reality TV shows that may have killed off the genre for good. Paradise Hotel, Cupid, For Love or Money, Who Wants To Marry My Dad, etc., have made us long for a ban on television dating.
Before we drown in closeup reaction shots of scorned wannabe brides, it's time to save the sinking ship of reality TV. Here's the problem. No matter what the ridiculous premise, reality programs have far too many hot bodies.
Let's get real. Why should I care if sexy Jeremy chooses sexy Tara instead of sexy Lisa? How can I feel empathy for a chiseled twentysomething who tosses and turns at night trying to decide between ten horny bombshells?
Sorry, I can't relate.
That was the one refreshing aspect of watching the first wave of reality shows. Occasionally, a less than attractive person would win out. Now, you can't even find an ugly survivor. What happened to the thrill of seeing fat, naked Richard Hatch flash his middle aged bum on national TV ?
I had a lot of managers when I was a junior in high school dropping fries into a grease vat at McDonald's. None of them resembled Rocco DiSpirito, the chic chef of NBC's The Restaurant. In fact, my fast food franchise owner looked more like Spongebob SquarePants. That's reality.
When reality shows do confront a less than attractive person, the entire premise of the program is "How do we fix these eyesores?" ABC's Extreme Makeover goes to enormous lengths to magnify some poor soul's bodily shortcomings in order to make their reincarnation more heavenly. Bob has bags the size of wasp nests under his eyes. Judy lives with a gallon and a half of cottage cheese in her thighs. We'll fix 'em.
Why? Leave the normal people alone.
American Idol, a show that takes average (albeit starry eyed) folks and cleans them up so they look like pop stars, ended up crowning the overly rotund Ruben Studdard as its champion. Ironically, he was the one contestant they couldn't makeover into a Teen Beat cover model. There's not much the Idol stylists could do except throw a tent and an area code on the 300-pound crooner, which made his victory the most satisfying of any of the reality winners.
A real person won!
Queer Eye For The Straight Guy spends an hour overhauling the mumbling male slobs of America. The fab five makeover kings, uh queens, are quite entertaining as they accessorize the love handles off their shabby clients. But the repetitive premise wears thin after a couple help-the-heterosexual episodes. That's the sad truth for 9 out of 10 reality shows.
They're spinning their reality wheels trying to convince America that life would be so much better if you just waxed the hair off your back, painted your bedroom, and ate more vegetable quiche.
If only these producers understood that we love the plight of the average face, perhaps their absurd reality premises might get back down to earth. Imagine a Temptation Island where pot-bellied, 45-year old Jerry has to choose between Lucy, his happy but homely live-in girlfriend of ten years and Jasmine, the sizzling 22-year old aerobics instructor from Hotlanta.
Now that's real temptation.
Fox's Mr. Personality was on the right track. Put deformed masks on a herd of hungry men and make a gorgeous bachelorette pick one based on what they say, not how they look. Only problem was that all the eligible men were at least marginally good looking and in good physical shape. That's not the portrait of the average American male that I know. Pull off any of the masks and the worst our indecisive damsel could do was a balding millionaire. Gee, bummer.
Of course that's nothing new. Too many beautiful faces have long been a criticism of network television. Everyone is too attractive. The cops, the criminals, even the corpses on CSI.
If reality TV has one redeeming quality, it's that once-in-a-sweeps period we see a little bit of ourselves in the quirky lives of reality subjects. But that's hard to do when studs like Joe Millionaire bear no resemblance to the average Joe.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell

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