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Reality Bites

Occasionally large, heavy objects fall on both my wife and our remote control, simultaneously turning on the TV and immobilizing The Queen, leaving her no choice but to watch some of the worst television programs ever aired. Or so she would have me believe when I wander into the living room and find her riveted to The Swan or American Idol. When she notices me she'll sort of start guiltily and exclaim "I was trying to find Nova! And I completely accidentally came across this! And then I ... I, uh ... uh ..." and then she trails off and her eyes drift back to Extreme Nanny Makeover Swap III.

I think the low point came when I caught her watching Colonial House, a reality show on PBS. Yes, you heard me right: PBS has reality shows. But they're public television, so they have to be all educational and dignified and shit, right? So instead challenging contestants to eat centipede feces or whatever, they do the sixth-grade play "The First Thanksgiving" writ large. In the case of Colonial House they stuck all a bunch of people in a remote community and made them pretend like they were living in 1628, which they did with remarkable verisimilitude except, possibly, when (1) one of the indentured servant announced that he was gay and the whole community pelted him with accolades for his bravery instead of cobble, and (2) one of the colonists walked a few miles to the nearest modern town for a cheeseburger and beer (really).

"It's a bunch of people dressed in itchy clothes and pretending like they live in ye olde olden tymes?" I asked, when The Queen explained the premise to me. "Good lord, you're watching a televised LARP!" I continued to mock her for several more seconds, until it dawned on me that, of the two people in the room, only one was geeky enough to know what "LARP" stands for. (And, let's me honest: when PBS holds Seattle auditions for Gamma World House, the guy at the front of the line in the mutated badger costume will be me.)

But there's one terrible, terrible reality show that The Queen doesn't even try to hide her addiction to. She enjoys it so much that she gets excited about it days in advance. On Sunday afternoon we'll be in the middle of a discussion about whether cauliflower should be refrigerated, and she'll suddenly gasp and say "My trashy show is on in three days!" "Trashy show" are her words, not mine. Although they are also mine now, since last Wednesday I was conscripted into watching the show with her.

Yes, dear readers: I watched America's Next Top Model.

The Queen has been trying to get me to watch it for ages, and I caved when she upped the ante by adding yet another "really" to her description; as in "You should watch it: it's really, really, really, really bad." (Curiously, this advertising technique always seems to work for me.)

I figured, what the hell: even if the show sucks, at least I'll get to look at hot girls for an hour, right? Bzzzzzzt, wrong. First, it looks they cast the show by going to a local high school and herding the drill team into a van. Second -- how do I put this diplomatically? -- I like curves, and these girls are about as curvy as a yardstick. Regardless of who wins, America's Next Top Model will have to visit the Old Country Buffet every day for a month before I'll ever steal furtive glances at her in the Old Navy catalog.

Thirdly -- and this is what makes the show entertaining, or so The Queen assures me -- you get the distinct impression that none of these ladies are exactly mathletes, if you catch my drift. One of the reoccurring features of the show is that the host, Tyra Banks, sends the contestants cryptic little notes hinting at the next event they'll be asked to participate in. They are like the puzzles that the Riddler is always sending, except, instead of solving the enigma and charging off to apprehend the villain, imagine Batman and Robin reading the riddle and then just sort of staring off into the middle-distance for a while, befuddled, before wandering off to touch-up their roots.

Yep, it was an atrocity, all right. Some of the more cringeworth moments:

  • In one scene, a girl (I don't know which, I didn't bother trying to keep them straight. The skinny one.) complained "This competition is getting so competitive!"
  • In another, one of the girls went to an event wearing this t-shirt:

  • They did a photoshoot based on the seven deadly sins. Afterwards, while evaluating the photos, the judges bad-mouthed the girl who got stuck with "gluttony" because she looked fat.
  • Also, not ten minutes after they had reminded us that "pride" is a sin, one of the judges gave a long and unironic speech to one of the contestant about how crucial it is that we all be filled with pride in ourselves.
  • And in the big, final, "who is going to get kicked off the show" climax, one of the girls got criticized for not having "a good face for makeup." I DON'T EVEN UNDERSTAND THAT WTF AMERICA??!!?
When the show ended, The Queen and I had the following exchange:
Q: See? Awful, huh?

M: Even worse than you promised.

Q: So now you're as addicted as I am.

M: And that's where you're wrong.

Q: Oh c'mon. How can you not watch it? It's like a train wreck.

M: Tell you what: if the next episode features those girls in an actual train wreck, I'll watch.

Q: Whatever. You'll make a big show of not watching next week, but as soon as it's over you'll be asking me who got kicked off.

Pffft. I'll so totally be not asking her who got kicked off. Not when I can just search Google and find out for myself.

Posted on April 25, 2005 to Storytelling


beware of the all day America's Next Top Model marathons! i am ashamed to admit i got sucked into watching an all day marathon a few months ago. it was like a tractor beam - i just couldn't pull away!

Posted by: geeky on April 25, 2005 8:13 PM

Oh, dude, I love ANTM! I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets excited days in advance of the Wednesday screening. Sometimes I laugh so hard during that show I injure myself a little. I'm sorry you're being "forced" into watching it so late into the season--you missed the episode where the skinny one (ha) passes out and makes an unbelievably loud "thump" sound hitting the floor, considering she weighs 58 pounds. The judges voted her off the show because while she was lying there, she looked "passed out" and "totally unconscious." Hee.

Posted by: nanfoodle on April 25, 2005 9:44 PM

You have to play Fluxx, it is really, really, really, really bad.

Posted by: SH Wong on April 26, 2005 2:41 AM

Reality tv is total trash... Well, except for 'Americas Wildest Police videos'. that show is awesome, and litteraly is a car wreck. And technichally, it's not a normal reality show format. I only sat that because it is technically 'real'...

...though it is pro-police propoganda, but so great!

Posted by: Wedge on April 26, 2005 4:12 AM

I am surprised that no one called you on your obvious ignorance of PBS Reality shows. They are signifigantly more than Survivor in the past. The people chosen to be on Frontier House, Colonial House, Manor House etc. have spents weeks and months preparing for their adventures.

Plus Oprah visited and spent a day at Colonial House. I mean Matt, I don't know what else it takes to get you to see how truly wonderous these shows are.

And are you truly dissing Americas Next Top Model? Because some of us live for our Wednesday nights of ANTM, West Wing, followed by the taped episode of LOST. It's all we've got man.

Posted by: Kristen on April 26, 2005 5:09 AM

LARP. yep. you just killed me with that. I used to be a costume designer, and them folks "aint right in the head." And I agree that the girls on ANTM just aren't attractive. they just aren't.

Posted by: whfropera on April 26, 2005 5:26 AM

omg, i would so never in a million years ever watch that show! ick!

naima is my favorite, and if you want to know who got booted off go to upn.com....they have background info and stats on each of the girls..

not that i would know that or anything...*cough cough*

Posted by: miss wanton on April 26, 2005 5:58 AM

The Rock Star and I, against our better judgement (we normally watch The West Wing, honest) somehow got hooked on the heinously bad first series of "Paradise Hotel" which I think manages to beat just about every reality series hands down as IT'S COMPLETELY STAGED. We'd actually STAY UP to watch this train wreck every Wednesday night, so I can totally feel your pain. It's what happens when bad shows happen to good people.

Posted by: galetea on April 26, 2005 6:03 AM

I got sucked into this show last season with my girlfriend. They always start off with good looking girls, who have curves (or at least, curves enough to not look like little teenaged boys), and one by one they kick off said good looking girls, because they're not "model" enough. Bah! I think Tyra just doesn't want any girls who can compete with her for jobs. :P

Posted by: Ryan Waddell on April 26, 2005 6:11 AM

Totally agree with you on the curve issue, Matt.

Iíd read an article somewhere about ANTM accusing it of perpetuating the supermodel myth and pressuring young women to conform to an idealised image which is purely based on the male perspective. Hang on, I thought, thatís just not true. Most guys I know donít care a fig about the fashion world. You wonít find Bubba in his trailer park eagerly renewing his subscription to Vogue Magazine and when was the last time you heard a catcall at a catwalk?

Now donít get me wrong, exploitation of women does exist and we men are pigs, but at least they should get the facts right. As a rule:

Penthouse, Hustler, etc. Ė Exploitation of women mostly by heterosexual men.
Fashion Business - Exploitation of women mostly by other women and gay men.

I mean debit where debitís due.

Posted by: Lung the Younger on April 26, 2005 6:13 AM

If you like watching people LARP on TV, it's a shame you missed Surviving the Age of Iron. This show was the Brittish response to Colonial House: "Oh, you Yanks think it was hard to live in Colonial times? We'll show you."

The upshot of the show: Everyone got very, very sick. It turns out that modern people don't know all that much about cooking meat in a cauldron.

Posted by: Matt on April 26, 2005 7:52 AM

If I had time, I'd do a whole exposition on the de-evolution of the PBS reality show, but here's the summary:

- Victorian House - The original as done in England. Incredible attention to detail, down to the use of sanitary napkins. The husband wore period costume to work. Drove the family to tears.

- Frontier House - Mostly attempted great accuracy, but started to focus a lot on inter-personal problems between families. Had one of the most aggressive cheaters ever in the person of the California executive.

- Colonial House - Talked a lot about accuracy. But in the filming it just became a free-for-all. Tried not to be too obvious about taking on significant elements of "The Real World." If they had cast Puck as the village idiot, it would have transferred over perfectly.

My preference is that PBS scale back to the single-family format in the original Victorian House series, or just give it up entirely and film "Real World Carthage"

Posted by: Lost Poke on April 26, 2005 7:58 AM

That was hilarious, in part because it's way too true. I mean, like eerily so. Here in Toronto I've been living the exact same series of events:

1. Wife loves ANTM, looks forward to it, calls it "trash TV".

2. Gets me to finally watch it last Wednesday.

3. I am surprised to find the show even worse than I imagined, and none of the girls attractive.

Coupled with the fact that I actually went to one LARPing session in my life and I could have written that column, ignoring my pitiful lack of talent with writing in comparison to yours.

Posted by: Blake Richards on April 26, 2005 9:06 AM

Oh my god, that is exactly how I started watching American Idol. Be careful! Only through sheer force of will was I able to deprogram myself.

And as for Gamma World House... I'm right there with you, though I might even go geekier and hold out for Metamorphosis Alpha House

Posted by: Dan Someone on April 26, 2005 9:11 AM

Come back, Lluvy! All is forgiven!

Posted by: Ian on April 26, 2005 10:36 AM

last season on ANTM there was an honest-to-goodness curvy woman who was GORGEOUS. she was a "plus size" model (which, i think, means a 12... *as if*) and managed to avoid being kicked off for a rather long time.

this year, they explicitly avoided casting any curvy girls, because they decided it would be unfair to them... the big girls would never actually *be* America's Next Top Model, so why string them along by casting one?


Posted by: christa on April 26, 2005 11:20 AM

I have to pull myself away from reality TV about once a month, usually during some sort of "marathon"--especially VH1's Surreal Life, which is the worst tv show ever--all the washed up celebrities crying and calling each other washed up. My roommates hate me for it.
I'm ashamed to admit. Not so much into Colonial House, although I did like the fact that the real-life minister wasn't allowed to be the preacher--they made the liberal hippy professor the preacher, instead.

Posted by: sassycat on April 26, 2005 11:39 AM

If you think ANTM is bad, you should try The Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. She has to be the most spoiled, self-absorbed, and airheaded person I have ever seen.

Naturally, I have to watch just to see what innane thing she will do next. I usually spend the entire show trying to decide who is worse: Jessica, because she's Jessica, or Nick, because he married her.

Posted by: Natasha on April 26, 2005 12:40 PM

We are all going to tune in to UPN on Tuesday, May 17 at 9PM ET/PT for "Britney & Kevin", aren't we?

Posted by: Anonymous on April 26, 2005 1:33 PM

Frontier House was fabulous, precisely because of the family of worst cheaters in a reality show ever. The payoff -- which was surprisingly poignant -- was when this crew of alcohol-brewing, makeup-hoarding, strip-down-to-your-drawers-to-do-your-chores whiners finally returned to their 4,500-square-foot Southern California mansion with the swimming pool overlooking the ocean. The teen-age girls, who had sobbed and complained throughout the entire frontier experience, talked about how lonely their huge house felt and how superficial and pointless their modern lives felt. (DING! You are a winner!)

And I have to agree with the Queen that ANTM has a certain awful fascination. Nowhere else can you hear a panel of fashionistas absolutely RIP on some poor woman for imaginary flaws like "not selling it enough" and then hear Tyra Banks, her voice absolutely quivering with emotion, tell some contestant that "being America's Next Top Model is all about SELFLESSNESS."

It's enough to make me pass a cheeto through my nose.

Posted by: Carny Asada on April 26, 2005 3:36 PM

Natasha: To be fair, Jessica is smokin hot (in that all-American, barbie kinda way) - Nick seems to mostly tune her out or laugh at her stupidity, so clearly he knows what he's gotten himself into. If he was complaining weekly about her lack of brains, then we might be able to fault him, but really he's just a hornball frat boy who married the super hot dumb chick. If she ever loses her looks, just wait and see how long that marriage continues on :P

Posted by: Ryan Waddell on April 26, 2005 4:48 PM

you totally forgot about the part where the Tyra Mail said that they all needed to be ready at the crack of dawn, and all the girls looked at each other and said, "Wha? When is that? What does 'crack of dawn' mean?" yeah, we watched that part over and over again.

best. show. ever. Hail The Queen.

Posted by: dooce on April 26, 2005 6:46 PM

My weird reality-show addiction is that I'm totally hooked on the Seattle P-I's weekly column on "The Apprentice". I don't watch the show, but I eagerly await the newspaper to see who got hauled to the boardroom (whatever that is) and why they got fired. I don't think I could actually stand to sit through the actual show.

And did you see the dress Donald's wife got married in? BLAH!! And she paid how much for that ugly thing?!?

Posted by: C. on April 27, 2005 5:30 AM

Ah yes... ANTM. I am helpless before it. Excited all Wednesday, can't wait, tape "Lost" so I can watch it, fer Chrissakes (of course, I find Lost compelling for the opposite reason: that it's good).

It's a sickness, really.

Posted by: Lene on April 27, 2005 7:00 AM

In a strange twist of fate, the winner of the first season of ANTM was on the most recent season of The Surreal Life. She took the top prize on ANTM and was a has-been before three years had passed. And her prize on The Surreal Life? She chased down, and eventually caught, surreal life co-star Peter Brady!

Posted by: Matthew Makous on April 27, 2005 8:24 AM

And now I am the most pathetic would-be blogger ever - I don't even know my own blog's URL. (corrected in this comment's link)

Posted by: Matthew Makous on April 27, 2005 8:27 AM

The Surreal Life has left me with one, terrible, indelible mental scar: The vision of a drunk, nude Mini-Me pee-ing off of his scooter into the corner.

Posted by: Lost Poke on April 27, 2005 8:29 AM

What, the vision of Flava Flave and Brigit Nielsen (who now have their own bizarre show) didn't leave you with mental scars? *shudder*

My least favorite reality show, though, has to be the Amazing Race. I'd never watched it until my inlaws came to visit, and my mother-in-law is hooked on it. So I had to watch. Man is it boring! The only way they can make it exciting is by deliberately editing the last few teams' race to the checkpoint to make it seem like it's hard to tell who's in front. Ok, sometimes it's close...but most of the time when it's close they do something like "Our lead team has a 6 hour head start...so we'll make them take a plane that doesn't leave for another 27 hours. WHO WILL GET ON THE PLANE FIRST?! OMG!"

And that cardboard cutout they have as a host? I love how he tries to act all depressed when the next-to-last team comes in, and then tries to act all excited when he tells them they're not last. Well, at least I think that's what he's going for. It's hard to tell when his range of emotion is about as wide as the hips on some of those ANTM girls.

Posted by: Skane on April 27, 2005 9:10 AM

I'm so hopelessly addicted to ANTM that after I watch the episode I read the synopsis on "television without pity". It makes me laugh inappropriately at work. I can't stand the show and I'm constantly flicking away to avoid the near-physical pain it brings me (augh, they can't read! they can't walk! stop gyrating idiot!), but I'm always back again two minutes later. And Janice Dickinson. She kills me.

Posted by: Emily on April 27, 2005 11:02 AM

Yipes. Unlike everyone else who watched reality TV as a guilty pleasure and then gleefully deconstructs it, i... actually don't watch it. Goddamn.

But, ummmm...... you're right about the curves thing. Skinny girls stink!


Posted by: ELF Radio on April 28, 2005 9:39 AM

Baldwin strikes again. I want to see "America's Next Top Mathlete". Get someone suitable to replace Tyra as host, say Ken Jennings, a group of quirky judges, and the top SAT scores from each state applying to become one of 14 to compete for ANTM. I can hear the tagline now "When the numbers stop being imaginary, and start getting real". Brilliant.

Posted by: coward on May 2, 2005 8:51 AM

Are these men saying skinny girls stink? Because I can't really seem to find one who agrees with that and I am constantly being pushed aside for the skinny girls. And I'm only average, not even fat!

Posted by: Mary on May 2, 2005 5:32 PM

I don't think it is a coincidence that Nick seems to be sponsored by Miller Lite.

The Amazing Race has what most other reality shows will never have: compelling characters with legitimate enviable relationships, drama, a worldview and culture, a plot... It teaches. It seems to do a pretty good job of rewarding integrity (somehow). I can't believe that the only knock on it you can come up with is that the ending seems a bit edited. Maybe the fact that the show doesn't really even need a host (like that hand holder Jeff Probst) means that it is actually a decent show with a concept that can support itself without 20 minutes of high school English style discussion questions at the end.

Posted by: Bob on May 5, 2005 11:29 AM