Reality Bites

By Jason Menard

Feb. 21, 2006 — The perils of watching reality television include the simple fact that the more you watch, the more familiar it all becomes. And, when it comes to reality, one thing’s for sure – good things don’t come in threes.

Trying to get caught in the draft of the unexplicably popular American Idol (as proud of a Canadian as I am, I refuse to even refer to that Ben Mulroney-helmed disaster of a knock-off to which we’re subjected), two other shows have joined the fray: the “pick-some-words-out-of-a-hat-and-throw-them-on-a-page twins, Dancing with the Stars and Skating with Celebrities.

Both shows enjoy a sort of Surreal Life cachet of faded stars and B-list performers stepping out of their element and performing on a national stage. And, unlike the karaoke-quality wannabes that turn out for Idol, these dancers and skaters are able to instill a sense of conviviality with the viewers due to the fact that any of us can imagine ourselves in a similar fish-out-of-water scenario. Whereas the Idols are convinced they are the world’s gift to singing, Dancing and Skating’s participants appear to truly enjoy the experience, revel in the learning process, and grow.

Unfortunately, all good things don’t come in threes, and the inexplicable decision to replicate the judging tribunal on each show reveals either a lack of creativity or a calculated tweaking of the audience’s nerve endings in order to artificially stimulate a response.

All three shows employ archetypal judges that fit into three categories: the vapid, schmoopy, “I love everyone” soft-sell, female judge (Paula Abdul, the saccharine overloaded Dorothy Hamill, and Carrie Ann Inaba, best known for her stellar role as Fook You in Austin Powers: Goldmember, and her seeming dislike for anyone from the female race); the catch-phrase ridden, animated foil, middle-ground judge (the Aallllight Dawg-repeating Randy Jackson, the “what clever play on words did I think up this week to wedge into a performance review” Bruno Toniol, and the man who somehow mixes blandness with hyperbole, Mark Lund.

And, of course, there’s the third judge. Snarky, to-the-point, and British: the archetype, Simon Cowell, and his ex-pat brethren Len Goodman and John Nicks. These are the, albeit acerbic, voices of reason. They cut through the niceties and say what needs to be said – and, of course, a worthy competitor would take constructive criticism to heart and improve.

But that’s not the way these shows work. Taking a cue from our cultural over-sensitivity, the studio audience vociferously boos whenever a negative syllable is uttered. Apparently we’re not allowed to have people who are worse at something than another. To these fans, these shows should be nothing more than televised T-ball, where everyone gets a turn and no-one loses.

Or maybe it’s just another way to rub the British’s faces in the whole American revolution. You can have your cantankerous judge who speaks the truth, but they’ll assert their American dominance to thwart the judges’ nefarious cultural colonialism.

Want proof? Master P. Need more? Bruce Jenner. Again? How about any of the American Idol rejects who inexplicably outlive their usefulness at the expense of audibly more talented performers? And what’s the best way to ensure that these less-than-shining lights stay on the show? Make sure that the British judge either chastises the competitor or chides the audience for keeping them in the competition.

American voters hate being told what to do. Being told by a stuffy Englishman with an attitude? Horrific. I mean, the only thing I can think many Americans would find worse is being condescended to by a judge from France.

Alas, the joy in watching these shows doesn’t come from the idea that you’re going to see something groundbreaking. What people like is the familiarity. That’s why the rosters, for the most part, are riddled with known faces from our past, that’s why the songs used are non-offensive standards culled from history, and that’s why the sets and judging are all identically formatted. It’s electronic comfort programming at its best and its worst.

In the end, we want everyone to hug, everyone to be friends, and everyone to congratulate each other for just giving their all! And if it takes booing down a surly British judge, well then so be it.

Now, if only we could figure out how to export Ben Mulroney to one of these shows…

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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