The Little Picture: Believe it or not, TV’s reality could be worse

May 13, 2002  •  Post A Comment

In this space a few months ago-Sept. 10, to be exact-I predicted a prosperous season for reality TV shows. What happened the following day made all that so-called “reality TV” seem so petty and silly and shallow in comparison. But that’s not why reality failed to meet its potential. Truth is, the shows are really bad.
The only thing amazing about “The Amazing Race” was that Europe didn’t complain to the United Nations about our ugly Americans running around like idiots through its cathedrals and plazas. “The Chamber” deserved “The Chair,” and vice versa. The WB show “No Boundaries” lived up to its title when it fell below the 1.0 Nielsen Media Research rating that was once the boundary between WB and Pax shows.
Things aren’t looking any better for next season. Bravo, I’ve just learned, is looking at a reality show where every week five gay men will give a straight man a makeover. No, that doesn’t sound like a cliche about gay men at all. And I’m sure the straight guy won’t look like he just stumbled out of a taping of “The Man Show” either.
Seems to me that in their frantic pursuit of another reality hit, TV producers are missing out on some potentially terrific opportunities right under their noses. The following ideas are offered up solely in the interest of better television. They’re all inspired by something the late Gene Siskel said: Instead of watching a bad movie, most of us would rather watch a documentary about the people who made the movie.
* “TV’s Biggest Duds.” Thanks to Carol Burnett, the networks are squeezing every last drop out of nostalgia specials this month. Soon people will be sick of reliving their favorite old TV shows. But the savvy programmer knows that opportunity lies just down the road and over the hill from the graveyard of television hits, out in the landfill where television’s refuse is buried.
After all, who can forget Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch starring in “George & Leo”? Or Jackie Gleason hosting one episode of “You’re in the Picture”-and then spending the next week’s episode apologizing for it? I guarantee you, people would eat this up. Failure is an underestimated part of celebrity appeal; just ask Greg Norman or Susan Lucci. It could generate enormous pop culture buzz. No TV Guide profile would be complete without a mention of “TV’s Biggest Duds.” Love you, Hector Elizondo-but what were you thinking with “Freebie and the Bean”?
Each episode would open on a note of misguided optimism-an old clip of Kirstie Alley shilling for “Veronica’s Closet” on “ET,” or maybe an executive’s effusive praise at the upfront. Then the fun would start as the show sank into a predictable miasma of backstage carping, inept writing and the most savage reviews that research can find. The episode would end with the narrator telling us how much happier the stars are now that they aren’t on television. Is there a warmer fuzzy?
* “Bill Clinton Live!” Based on the “Project Greenlight” series, this one would feature the former president preparing to make his debut as a daytime talk show host. Video crews follow his staff around as they scurry to put a high-pressure daytime talker on the air and work with the prickly former communicator-in-chief.
Now here’s the best part: The talk show never airs. For as anyone who has spent more than three seconds thinking about it realizes, a Clinton talk show would be a recipe for disaster. (Don’t people remember his speech at the ’88 Democratic National Convention?)
On the other hand, a show about the making of that show would be a hoot, especially in the hands of a Republican video editor. We’d see Clinton in his true element: schmoozing backstage with celebrities, throwing one of his legendary tantrums, going through producers faster than Rosie O’Donnell and much more. NBC would easily make back its $50 million.
* “The Turners.” Quick, name the industry executive whose domestic life you’d most like to watch on television. Now name the industry executive who might just be crazy enough to have his domestic life shown on television. To seal the deal for this WB reality show, Jamie Kellner agrees to let Ted run Headline News. (Hey, it’s not like he can make it suck any more than it already does.)
* “Inside the WFL.” The key mistake that the XFL made was assuming that TV audiences wanted to watch more football. What we really wanted to see were more of the phony melodramas, trumped-up feuds and delicious back-stabbing that made professional wrestling entertaining for a while.
So what you do is revive the old World Football League, that would-be rival to the NFL back in the ’70s. You wouldn’t need more than four teams (Shreveport Steamers, anyone?) playing in one arena. The league would be intentionally underfunded, forcing coaches and owners to fight over table scraps. Players would gossip about their teammates’ personal habits. One part Clinton show, one part “Real World,” it would feature little actual game footage. Nike, lately infatuated with all things 1975, would produce.
* “Battle of the Network Reality Shows.” If all else fails, put on the reality show to end all reality shows. Six network executives, six pilots, six egomaniacal producers, six awful time periods, six cold-blooded editors and 60 wannabe TV stars willing to pose as everyday Americans. Put ’em on the air and watch the ratings go down, down, down. Last show standing gets a renewal in the “Family Law” time slot on CBS.
Hey, it’s either that or “Carol Burnett’s Show Stoppers IV.”
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in EM. He covers television for the Kansas City Star, and his Web site (www.tvbarn.com) covers TV topics daily.