Looking for edification from reality TV? You're more likely to find a diamond ring in a pile of dog poop. Reality TV is so cynically manipulative and flat-out made up—and we the audience tolerate it, willingly suspending our disbelief—that rather than looking for positive role models or inspiring situations, you're better off searching for the intentional and unintentional messages being sent by the participants, producers and networks.
For example, I have an easy time watching Crowned on The CW, the mother/daughter pageant that, thanks to the evergreen writers' strike, is must-see TV. The things I like about the show are the same reasons stern taskmasters ban TV in their households: it's got pointless catfights, it reinforces our culture's angriest observations about various groups (particularly women, the wealthy and blacks) and it's easy to watch and watch.
Crowned had one of the best first episodes of trash reality TV ever in that it ended with a shocking elimination fake-out—the losers are expected to be "de-sashed," but the team asked to pick up the scissors were told to put them to use on another team who'd already breathed a sigh of relief. Since then, the show has been fairly routine, though the creators get kudos for finding interesting (in a bad way) personalities to people their bitchfest. Or at least women willing to pretend they're bitches for the duration of the series to make good TV—we all participate in our cultural delusions.
The most striking aspect of the show has been its increasing refusal to punish the phony villains it's created; usually, there is one nasty person—a loud black woman does the trick every time—who is allowed to survive eliminations by the skin of his or her fangs before getting poetic comeuppance. In the case of Crowned, there are multiple baddies, spoiled, malicious, holier-than-thou, fake, disrespectful moms and daughters, and so far they've outlasted a majority of the goodies, the kinder, often more naive, teams, like the clueless professor and her daughter (Annette and Alana) who named themselves "Silent But Deadly" without realizing why that moniker stinks.
But as always, the worst offender is a black woman, in this case Angela. Is this because black women are total bitches? I'm going to go out on a limb and guess it's because the majority of the viewing audience thinks, on some level, that they are, and seeing a cartoonish black woman with a bad wig sneering about her bling is appealing on a gut level. Intentions aside, Angela and her daughter Tenia—who've christened themselves "Skin Deep" with no irony at all—more than live up to the stereotypes. Their nastiness is palpable. I hope they were acting and I hope they got paid, because if they were my neighbors I'd move.
Nearly as contemptible are Patty and Laura, optimistically dubbed the "Redhead Bombshells." (Wait, isn't this a beauty pageant?) Skin Deep reinforces racial disdain, but Patty and Laura seem to work my last class nerve—I have no idea if they're rich, but they come off as privileged, more entitled than titled. Laura is a powerful yet unpleasant musical-theater singer and Patty is a slip of a woman with fake boobs as hard as her stubborn daughter's pointed head. The face on that mom could be hired for a PSA against elective surgery. Together, they've hissed in laughter at one of the show's obvious heroines' "atrocious" figure, apparently never having heard that men can handle extra junk if the upper region does not require a paper bag.
As you can tell, I take pleasure from watching this show. I guess it's better than trying this crystal meth and barebacking everyone's talking about. But it's poison.
A poisonous apple is still an apple; it tastes good going down. And if you survive the poisoning, you might get hooked and, like every good addict, cockily feel you can control your intake and its effects indefinitely. That's where I am right now, because I wouldn't miss an episode.
Also, Crowned stacks up well against that other beauty-contest (don't believe them when they say it's not about beauty anymore) series, TLC Discovery's Miss America Reality Check, on which viewers will vote for a girl who will actually be one of the finalists to win that venerable pageant. Sure, Carson Kressley—one of Crowned's judges—is the new Franklin Pangborn, but it's less depressing to watch a 38-year-old openly gay queen mix it up unapologetically with contestants competing in made-up challenges than it is to watch 26-year-old Michael Urie from Ugly Betty—who is from the Sean Hayes school of "I won't lie, but I won't talk about it"—hosting contestants who are making speeches against gay marriage and pre-marital sex and never having the balls to speak up. Oh, it's for money, it's for career—I forgot, that makes it okay. I guess he'd make a good pageant queen. (I did like "celebrity consultant" Jeannie Mai confronting some purity-preaching sash-wearers by directly asking, "Are you all virgins?" which led to stammers, silence and tears.)
Bravo's new Make Me A Supermodel does not deserve its prime spot following that network's charming, thoughtful, informative Project Runway, which is probably one of the best reality shows ever for me. Where Crowned is as satisfying as a really good, bad tabloid, Project Runway is interesting, the personalities less contrived, the situations fun and spirited. I guess I should have realized that Tyson Beckford could never have cooked up a show as sweet as Runway, but the results are still shockingly annoying.
On the premiere episode, watching Beckford and co-host Niki Taylor critique modeling aspirants, I was struck by what a dick he is—can't seem to help being. Part of it was what I perceived as a homophobic or at least gay-unfriendly vibe coming from the former supermodel. While demonstrating to two scared-shitless young guys how best to strut on a runway, his advice is to imagine a beautiful girl at the end of it...it never enters his mind that either guy might prefer a beautiful boy. Later, one of the judges dismisses one male model as being "too effeminate," and it's callously suggested he might make a better girl model than boy model; the initial remark did not come from Beckford but, more confoundingly, from the effeminate male judge. Am I ready to picket? No. Do I think it's depressingly self-defeating? Yeah!
The tone of Make Me A Supermodel is closer to American Idol in that hopefuls are shot down cavalierly by Beckford and mistily by Taylor. The difference is that Idol gleefully trashes idiotic people with zero reason to believe they should be singing, while Supermodel superdisses misters and misses who are pretty damn pretty and deserve more respectful treatment.
Of the three new-ish reality shows, I think I have to crown Crowned, whose participants at least appear to be fully on board with the false-is-the-new-true business plan.