According to industry hype and ink, summer 2002 was all about The Triumph of Reality TV and/or The Uprising of Cable—why has so little been written about the season’s two best reality TV shows, both of which happen to reside on cable?
Aside from Fox’s still-no-great-shakes American Idol, the broadcast networks’ reality-TV offerings have been utter crap: Dog Eat Dog, Fear Factor, Meet My Folks, Spy TV (NBC), Big Brother 3 (CBS), The Bachelor, The Hamptons, The Mole (ABC) and Bachelorettes in Alaska (Fox). Although, as collectively dumb as they were, cable outdid them a thousand-fold with The Anna Nicole Show (E!) and … well, there’s nothing else in the same sad league.
When it comes to reality TV, only MTV knows how to do it right: The Real World, Road Rules, Tough Enough, Fear, True Life, even Jackass—these are the gold standard of unscripted programming, not to mention the ultimate argument against letting middle-aged, out-of-touch network suits in the game.
This summer, however, MTV topped itself with the relatively buzz-free Sorority Life (season finale Monday, Sept. 9, 8-10:30 p.m.), a show largely ignored by middle-aged, out-of-touch TV critics. Sure, the “reality” of six University of California at Davis sorority pledges living in an MTV-bought luxury house, seemingly never going to class and constantly sucking on product-placement sponsored Aquafina bottles is obviously skewed, but the drama! You’ve got a half-dozen high-maintenance emotional time bombs loaded up on water and sharing one bathroom, do the math.
Sorority Life hasn’t exactly given equal time to all six pledges—I’ve watched the entire series, and I can’t name anyone outside of the party-hearty threesome of Jordan, Candace and Mara. As the prettiest, drunkest and craziest half of the house, the tank-topped trio hogs most of the screen time every week, at least until one of their homelier sisters has a meltdown over one of the three macking on another’s boyfriend (alcohol involved) or bailing on the sorority formal to go watch female strippers with their dates (ditto). Even then, the camera only lingers on Other Girl long enough for a perfunctory “That really, like, hurt my feelings …” whine before it’s back to the bar with J, C & M doing tequila shots and humping every leg in sight.
Now, before you start thinking, “I really went to the wrong college,” know that the elder sisters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi are adamant that MTV’s portrayal of their sorority pledge drive as a perpetual boys ‘n’ booze-fueled Girls Gone Wild catfight is stilted and inaccurate, and lip-glosses over the UC-Davis organization’s cultural traditions, community service work and superior GPA. While that sounds like a very exciting show … [sarcastic pause] … I’ll be tuning in for the poofy-haired drunk girls.
If Sorority Life is a mildly heated argument that reality TV isn’t all that real, Comedy Central’s unbelievably hysterical Contest Searchlight (all four episodes repeat Sunday, Sept. 8, 9-11p.m.) is a sucker punch. Actor-comedian Denis Leary, still rightfully pissed-off over the cancellation of his ABC series The Job, has decided to satirize HBO’s Project Greenlight, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s behind-the-scenes film-contest documentary seen by even fewer people than The Job, for no (apparent) reason.
None of Comedy Central’s advance press materials let it slip that there NEVER WAS a contest for aspiring young writers to pitch sitcom ideas to Leary’s Apostle production company and the network, or even hinted that Contest Searchlight is a big free-form comedy scam. Just as Greenlight chronicled a screenwriter’s start-to-finish work on an independent film, Searchlight follows the process of winner “Mike Lombardi” and Apostle bringing his comedy vision to life. But, surly Leary is constantly buzzed on Mike’s Hard Lemonade (now there’s a nervous sponsor), the network has bastardized the show (into a Friends-like improv-com called Jesus & the Gang, starring a portly black Savior), and everything that can go wrong does, horribly. Sham or not, you can’t help but laugh and/or cringe at each new “reality” TV disaster.
Even if Comedy Central actually runs the finished Jesus & the Gang in January as they say they will (who can believe ’em now?), it can’t possibly be as funny as Contest Searchlight itself. The only way to top it would be for Leary to sell Gang to NBC as a replacement for Friends … hmmm.
Tube Stops*Thursday, Sept. 5: V.I.P. (TNN, 3 and 10 p.m.) Jiggle-Action Alert: Thanks to the magic of cable, you can now watch reruns of Pamela Anderson and her V.I. peeps fighting crime (or whatever they do) daily! God bless America!
* Friday, Sept. 6: Late Night With Conan O’Brien (Comedy Central, 2 and 8 p.m.) Giggle-Action Alert: Thanks to the magic of cable, you can now watch reruns of Conan O’Brien and his Late Night peeps running a talk show (or whatever they do) daily! Huzzah!
* Saturday, Sept. 7: In Search of America (ABC, 8-10 p.m.) Series Finale: ABC newsbot Peter Jennings (who, as you should know, is a Canadian!) reports on Salt Lake City’s increased Homeland Security® measures. Can’t be that great if we’re letting Canucks in, now can it?
* Sunday, Sept. 8: Movie: Lathe of Heaven (2002, A&E, 6 p.m.) Film remake of the 1980 PBS remake of the 1971 Ursula K. LeGuin sci-fi novel about a man whose dreams become reality, but he’s wracked with guilt because the world sucks. Just start an emo band, dude.
* Monday, Sept. 9: Sorority Life (8-10:30 p.m.) Season Finale: With a four-episode lead-in, the girls finally decide to just settle their differences with a bikini mud-wrestling showdown (OK, not everyone’s dreams become reality).
* Tuesday, Sept. 10: Caroline Rhea (KSL 5, 3 p.m.) The heir to Rosie O’Donnell’s talk-show throne plays host to the hottest names in showbiz! Today, Caroline welcomes … Marlo Thomas? That’s it? Is the Sabrina gig still open?
* Wednesday, Sept. 11: ABC News: 9/11 (ABC, 7 p.m.); 9/11: The Day America Changed (Fox, 7 p.m.); 9/11 (CBS, 8 p.m.); 9/11 Concert For America (NBC, 8 p.m.); Frontline: Ground Zero 9/11 (KUED 7, 8 p.m.); Mormon Tabernacle Choir: 9/11 Memorial Service (KBYU 11, 8 p.m.); In Memoriam: 9/11 (HBO, 10 p.m.) …