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Reality Check-up
When television goes bad.

by Mark D. Johnson
November 8, 2002

Reality Check-up_Mark D. Johnson-When television goes bad. A year ago, in the sober months after September 11th, the television phenomenon known as Reality TV lost considerable momentum. Some of the tube’s hottest shows suddenly seemed absurdly meaningless. Some wondered if the fad had run its course, but if you’ve paid any attention to your local listings, you’ll have noticed that it is still very much with us, and possibly even stronger than ever.

Gone are the days when “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” aired three times a week on ABC, but the recent successes of new entries such as MTV’s “The Osbournes” and Fox’s “American Idol” have spawned a new generation of imitators, and, as was true when the first Reality wave enthralled the masses, the genre frequently flaunts its ugly side. It seems that for every “Survivor,” there’s an “Anna Nicole Smith Show.” The unscripted format seems to lend itself to a trashiness that panders to bad taste. Though there are some quality reality shows that deserve respect, the question comes up again and again: how far is too far? Here’s a quick look at a few shows coming to the airwaves in the next year that exemplify the seedier nature of reality through Hollywood's eyes.
  • “Married by America”, a Fox show in development which will ask viewers to essentially arrange a marriage among the willing men and women who are cast for the show and supposedly “tired with the dating scene.” The audience will vote “American Idol”-style. And you thought networks had learned their lesson after “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” Ha! ABC continues to play pimp for its popular show “The Bachelor,” which follows an arrogant young stud who must choose among fifty seductresses.

  • ”The Will”, coming to ABC, will have would-be heirs vying for their piece of the inheritance of a still-living wealthy benefactor. A variety of competitions will determine who gets what.

  • Controversial in a different way is ”The American Candidate,” will again feature audience-voting to “nominate” a la "American Idol" a “legitimate” candidate for the 2004 Presidential Election. A political “Star Search." While it may provoke some interesting dialogue, is this any way to pick a candidate? Is it okay for the political process to be given to us as entertainment?

  • Also looking to cash in on “American Idol” mania: “Supermodel” (UPN), the search for unrealistic beauty, and “Second Chance” (Fox), which will give former pop stars a chance to revive their dead careers, as well as other searches for a new action star, comedian, and country music singer. Is there a talent shortage?
Ozzy Osbourne’s wife, Sharon, revealed to “20/20” this week that the taping of the second season of the smash cable hit that chronicles their dysfunctional family’s profanity-laden existence has been extremely difficult to cope with as the cameras follow her treatment for color cancer, which has led to Ozzy’s frequent alcohol abuse. Season One had fans doubling over in laughter. It will be interesting to see if MTV continues to play it for laughs or shift gears in sensitivity to the family’s troubles at the risk of losing what made the show popular. I’m guessing they will try to keep a balance, but the reality shown will be skewed more severely than usual to keep the audience upbeat.

NBC continues to ride the success of its cheap thrill show, “Fear Factor,” while the young roommates on the original reality show, MTV’s “The Real World,” give their young audience new lessons in stupidity and sexual promiscuity.

And there’s plenty more reality raunch where that came from. How far is too far? Producers will continue to walk on the wild side until somebody dies as a direct result of being on a reality show. Then again, Jenny Jones is still on the air even though one of her guests murdered a fellow guest after being manipulated by the show's staff.

These unfortunate realities aside, I do want to stress that there are some good Reality shows worth watching, including “Survivor,” which has finally come up with some new challenges to stay fresh, “The Amazing Race,” one of the most engaging shows on television, and “The Mole,” a delightful game of spy novel intrigue. Those who still look down upon all reality-based shows can still justify a look at PBS’ “The Manor House,” which will debut in 2003. Like its predecessors, “1900 House” and “Frontier House,” “Manor” will follow modern-day families as they live for three months under authentic period conditions, in this case that of an Edwardian manor. It’s undeniably educational and family-oriented, but very much owes to its more tawdry network cousins. Perhaps it is Reality TV as it should be. But it’s not likely to attract many fans of Ozzy Osbourne.

About the Author:
Mark D. Johnson is the editor of The Partial Observer and welcomes television discussion in the Entertainment Forum.

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