It's summer time and that means a few new shows will pass across our screens as the networks secretly hope for another Northern Exposure or Survivor but publicly expect declining audiences and angry advertisers. This year the reality trend continues with shows which are either reality based or pretend to be. I've been watching three of them, with surprising faithfulness, and I feel like talking about them. In no particular order they are Dog Eat Dog, The Restaurant, and Train 48.
Dog Eat Dog had a limited run last season (and I wrote about it then) and is back for another this season. The premise of the show is simple. Get 6 people (3 male, 3 female) of little intelligence and moderate physicality but with surprisingly good senses of humour and engage them in physical and 'mental' challenges. The mental challenges consist of trivia so easy even the zero dollar winners of Who Wants to be a Millionaire would ace them. But that's beside the point. The show borrows a bit from The Weakest Link by having the contestants vote someone out. Only it's not quite that easy. The challenge is described to them, they vote for the person they think most likely to fail at it. That person takes the challenge. If they fail, they are sent to the dog pound. If they succeed, they get to send one of the people who voted for them to the dog pound. Once 4 contestants are in the pound, the remaining two engage in a head-to-head challenge and the winner gets to play for $25,000. Which means, by tv game show standards, you actually have to work pretty hard for your money here. The theme of picking losers continues, as the winner or Top Dog then has to pick members of the dog pound to answer trivia questions. There are 5 potential questions. If the pound gets three right, they split the $25,000. If they get three wrong, it all goes to the Top Dog.
This is a show which takes longer to describe than to play. On the face of it, it looks a loser. But it has two really good things going for it. First, virtually all the challenges involve getting the contestants into their swim suits. And these are good looking people. Since there are 3 men and 3 women, there is something for everybody. The camera work, especially underwater, is superb. And the challenges are surprisingly inventive. Among my favourites were the fish catching challenge. This was one of the head-to-head challenges where large fish were flung at the swim suit clad contestants and they tried to catch them and toss them into a bucket. I don't know why, but this was actually fun to watch. Even the so-called mental challenges can be interesting. One consists of being hung upside down over the pool (in your swim suit of course) and being shown morphed images of celebrities that you have to name. Or guessing which of six female impersonators really is female. While the contestants are generally dumb, the writers are really very clever and inventive.
The other good thing is the show's host, Brooke Burns. Brooke was formerly on Baywatch and is the perfect host for this show. She looks good in a bikini, actually has rapport with the contestants, and is just dumb enough to find the game exciting and just smart enough to be able to explain the often complicated rules. This season, they've even added a catch phrase to her repertoire - 'see ya'. Okay, not much of a catch phrase, but neither is 'is that your final answer'. After two seasons of watching this show, I find myself hungering for more. Surely if Fear Factor can make it, this show can. I want a full season of the series.
The Restaurant is pseudo reality. That is the restaurant, the chef, and the staff are all real people and places and it's a real business. But if it weren't for the intervention of television, this staff would never have been hired and never treated this way. The concept is simple. Follow a celebrity chef, Rocco, as he opens up a restaurant. Go through the process of finding the location, hiring a staff, and getting through the first few days of business. It's a limited run (only six episodes I believe) and since we already know the restaurant is still in business there aren't a whole lot of surprises. But it's surprisingly captivating.
This show is a creation of the Survivor crew and it works for very much the same reasons. While it purports to be reality, it's actually carefully indirectly scripted. The celebrity chef has to open a restaurant in a cuisine he's never practised professionally. He has an arbitrarily short time in which to find a location, prepare it, hire staff, and open. And the staff were clearly vetted by the producers. There is no way a real chef would hire such a large bunch of losers. But the producers clearly love the conflict these people produce. Like the woman who complains that dealing with forks is just too hard. Or the incompetent waiter who falls and hurts himself and keeps giving different stories about the nature of his injury ranging from unknown but painful to a broken arm. But he still wants to work and gets angry when told to go home and rest. Of course, when he did work he couldn't get orders straight, angered customers, and then complained about the lack of tips.
This is innocent fun because even when people are fired, it really doesn't matter. None of these people took the job just to get a job. They all wanted to be on tv. It's pretty obvious that the fork impaired waitress is thrilled at the chance to emote on screen and could care less about losing this job. I suspect the real staff, the ones who can actually remember the menu and know where to put the forks never make it on camera. Because as professional wait staff they are just too dull for reality tv. However, rumour has it the now off tv restaurant is much improved from the on screen version. It has a sign up saying the cameras have left. But the important thing is that the actors have left and the real workers get to do their jobs.
Train 48 is a Canadian show based on what I think is an Australian original. It's not the big Canadian show of the summer, that honour goes to Canadian Idol based on the US show based on the UK show. But since Canadian Idol seems to consist solely of people who cannot sing and judges who are just too Canadian to be rude enough to tell them so, it's just not any fun. Train 48, on the other hand, is captivating.
The show runs daily for half an hour and is actually taped the morning of the show. This allows for immediacy in the script - actual news items of the day are referred to all the time. The concept is simple. A group of commuters meet daily on the train home. They talk about their lives and the world at large and interact. Having done my share of commuting, I don't find this totally unrealistic. People do end up on the same train day after day. I certainly see the same people all the time. And sometimes they do strike up friendships. Since the show uses actual professional actors, the acting is better than on most other reality shows where only would be actors appear. The scripts are partly written, partly improvised around the events of the day. But what makes the show work are the characters.
I've only been watching the show a little while and I can already remember the names of the quite large cast, their characteristics, and their story lines. I can't remember the names of the staff on The Restaurant or for that matter the contestants on Canadian Idol. For the record they are Pete (who is a stock broker and pretty much immoral, currently he's angry because his exgirlfriend is seeing Zach), Lucas (who's incredibly slick and good looking and shallow and really upset because he recently discovered he has an 8 year old son but the mother and her husband won't let him see the boy any more), Liz (who works for a pharmaceutical firm, is clever and beautiful, and after two failed marriages has gone for artificial insemination and is now trying to illegally find out who the donor is), Dana (who wants to be a musician, is a lesbian who recently came out to her parents, works in a jewelry store, and is having problems with her girlfriend who said she wanted to live together but now has raised the ante to marriage), Nicole (who works in a hotel, is worried about being laid off because of SARS, and is dating a butcher who is a clean freak and used to date a married man), Brenda (who is conservatively Christian, thinks Dana is just going through a phase, and never, ever gets anyone's name right - this reached a peak recently when she mistook Rae Dawn Chong for Jennifer Beals and insisted it was Beals even after getting an autograph), Shannon (who works in a salon and has an elderly and not entirely competent mother living with her), Zach (who is young and trying to get his character Big Man made into an animated series), Randy (who is a computer programmer who loves SF and just had his engagement to Agnes broken off during his stag which involved a stripper and the revelation he'd rather be with Liz who he is helping get information on her sperm donor), and Johnny (who is a construction worker whose grandmother is dying and who just got fired).
These are actually pretty interesting people and I find their interactions at least amusing. They are more real than most soap opera characters and because all the action takes place on the train we don't get the wild story lines of most soaps. The show is very much dialogue driven, which is what I like. Another good point is that not every character is on every episode. This is true to life and also means that the writers don't have to juggle the entire cast every thirty minute episode. So individual storylines get more than three minutes an episode. This is a show I actually tape daily. It probably falls in the guilty pleasure category. But with Dog Eat Dog having finished its run, The Restaurant with only 3 episodes to go as of this writing, Farscape and Odyssey 5 both cancelled, I really don't have much in the way of any kind of tv pleasures. So I'll take the guilty ones while I can.
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