by Geoffrey Stanton
Reality TV: pretty much America's most significant cultural contribution since jazz (put down the cyanide pill, or at least save it for the end of the list, please). Some love to hate it, others hate to love it, but no one can deny the strength of its strange allure. But let's face it: if you went up to a friend and said "I saw a great new reality show last night", they'd most likely respond with something along the lines of "what do you mean by 'great', exactly?"
Truly, reality TV is at its most compelling when it goes into circus sideshow mode and allows us folks at home to indulge our voyeuristic side, reveling in the perversity of human drama from the comfort of our living room. If I was still in school for Sociology, I'd probably dive into endless speculation on why we as individuals delight in the grotesque misfortune of our compatriots, and what that might imply about our national character. But I'm not, so instead I'll just compile a roster of "the best of the worst"--those special shows that remind us of why we love our TVs but hate our neighbors. Enjoy.
10. Flavor of Love
For your consideration, I humbly submit VH1's Flavor of Love. Starring rapper and laughing stock Flavor Flav on his quest to find a perfect match, Flavor of Love is proof-positive that reality TV shows mutate and proliferate like cancer cells. After all, it's a spin-off of a spin-off of a spin-off--it was created to capitalize on the success of Strange Love, a reality show cataloguing the tumultuous relationship between Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielson, which was itself created in response to the pair's odd chemistry on VH1's The Surreal Life (which, of course, was a response to MTV's The Real World). Add that to the fact that Flavor of Love itself has not only a sequel (Flavor of Love 2) and a sister show (Rock of Love featuring Bret Michaels from Poison), but also three spin-offs of its own (I Love New York, I Love Money, and Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School) and it's enough to make you want to shower off your outermost layer of skin.
9. Trading Spouses
In 2003, comedian Dave Chappelle aired a sketch on his show called "Trading Spouses" (a pretty obvious play on TLC's interior decorating show Trading Spaces), in which families with radically different backgrounds traded wives for a week, with hilarious results. Naturally, the Fox TV Network, like a true scavenger who won't let a good meal go to waste just because it's lying dead in the middle of a busy street, saw in this satire the makings of a real cash-cow. Within a year of the sketch's original airing, Fox made Mr. Chappelle's dream come true--for better or worse. In what it flatters itself is a "social experiment", Trading Spouses pits America's cultural extremes against one another--evangelical Christians and Wiccans, earthy Northeast vegans and backwoods gator ranchers, etc.--to maximize the juicy drama (and hence ratings). If you're somehow lucky enough to have never caught an episode of this show, just check out this lady.
8. My Super Sweet 16
It's no secret that teenagers are simply the worst. I mean seriously awful. So it really shouldn't come as any surprise that My Super Sweet 16, a reality show about unbelievably spoiled teenagers girls throwing tantrums when their mothers buy them a Lexus but not the one they wanted, inspired comedian Bobcat Goldthwait to write and direct God Bless America, a black comedy about an average guy driven to a killing spree by the toxic vapidity of American culture. In it, run-of-the-mill forty-something Frank Murdoch is on the verge of commiting suicide with his handgun when he sees a snippet of a show closely mimicking My Super Sweet 16 and decides that there are plenty of people more worthy of being on the business-end of that pistol. Weirldy enough, I think that this type of response is more or less what the original show was actually going for. Imagine that.
7. Bad Girls Club
Carrying the My Super Sweet 16 mindset to its logical extreme is Bad Girls Club, a sort of chimera of The Real World the the Roman Coliseum, where seven self-styled "bad girls" are put into a guady mansion together and basically left to tear each other to shreds. Despite outspoken condemnation from women worldwide and a laundry list of public controversies over inflammatory remarks made by contestants, the TENTH season of Bad Girls Club is set to air this month. Let's reflect on that sad fact for just a moment. Arrested Development, generally considered one of the smartest and funniest comedies of the new millenium, was cut short in the THIRD season of its original run. Bad Girls Club, a vulgar orgy of profanity and violence that's probably about as bad for your brain as huffing paint thinner, has been on the air for three times as long as that, and is still going strong. The worst part is that it's an original creation of the Oxygen Network, co-founded by Oprah Winfrey and once heralded as a forward-thinking network intended to promote women. Maybe thinking is curved like the earth; if you end up going too far foward, you'll find eventually yourself way in back.
6. Growing Up Gotti
In 2005, A&E got wind of the rising popularity of trashy reality television shows and decided to throw its hat into the ring. In a misguided attempt to imbue the traditional reality TV formula with a little of their own style, they chose Victoria Gotti--daughter of Gambino crime family boss and multiple-murderer John Gotti--and her teenage sons, John, Frank and Carmine, as their subjects. Their rationale, as near as anyone can figure, was that the pairing of the tittilating schadenfraude of watching awful people be awful with the biographical curiosity surrounding the life of one of America's most iconic criminals was sure to be a breakout success. Unfortunately they made one grave miscalculation: the surviving Gottis, now over a decade removed from the height of their notoriety, were by 2005 little more than a classless and ruthlessly unsympathetic collection of nouveau-riche Italian-Americans with some vestigial delusions of grandeur. The show met with a lukewarm reception at best, and was unceremoniously dropped from A&E's lineup after only a single season. This early demise was probably in no way helped by a much-publicised scandal in which Victoria Gotti falsely claimed to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Gee, why didn't America fall in love with them?
5. Jersey Shore
As if Growing Up Gotti didn't do enough for America's perceptions of Italian-Americans, we now have to contend with the explosive popularity of MTV's Jersey Shore, a reality TV sensation that follows eight young "guidos and guidettes" on their summer misadventures in New Jersey's famed seaside resort town. I'll spare you a more lengthy synopsis, because the mere fact that you're reading this tells me that a) you're alive in the 2000's and b) that you have access to a computer, so I think it's a safe assumption that you're probably all too sick of hearing about Snooki and The Situation. Believe it or not, my real bone to pick with Jersey Shore stems less from my concerns about their humiliating representation of Italians and more from my severe irritation that spiked-up hair is now making a comeback. Having been a teenager in the 1990's and early 2000's amidst the proto-bro fad of spiking up one's bangs into a crusty fan-shape (I vividly remember a friend of mine describing the fashion trend as 'looking like you squirted a whole bottle of hair gel onto a desk and then just slammed your forehead against it'), I breathed a sigh of relief when the There's-Something-About-Mary hairstyle started to abate. Well take a good look around you, America, because we hopped straight out of the frying pan and into the fire.
4. The Real Housewives of Anywhere
Hoping to ride the popularity wave of ABC's Desperate Housewives--a smart, well-written satire of WASP culture in affluent American suburbs--the Bravo network debuted The Real Housewives of Orange County--an agonizingly vapid and cringeworthy celebration of how great it is to be the absolute worst. This was subsequently followed by The Real Housewives of New York City, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of New Jersey (now hoping to pile onto the Jersey Shore bandwagon), The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and The Real Housewives of Miami before finally giving up the ghost in 2012 due to waning interest. Oddly enough, in a last-ditch effort to breathe new life into the failing franchise, Bravo introduced Real Housewives: The Game, a social media abomination meant to parallel The Real Housewives of New York, releasing new content every week as episodes of the show aired. Launched in July 2012, the game was shut down in October, and we can only assume that a good chunk of Bravo executives either offed themselves or entered drug rehab.
3. Temptation Island
Take a trip down memory lane with me. In the early 2000's, when reality TV was still a budding phenomenon, it seemed as if any half-baked TV idea you could dream up could enjoy its moment in the sun... and in a sense, that was true. Enter Temptation Island, a show with a premise so mind-bogglingly bad that even at the tender age of 13 I was convinced it had to be a hoax. But alas, much to my (and many others') dismay, Temptation Island was the real thing. The show's setup, for those of you who have somehow avoided (or repressed) any knowledge of this gem, is as follows: young couples arrive at an island resort, where they are immediately separated and placed into the company of attractive singles of the opposite sex. The end. The driving force behind the show was to see if devoted couples could resist the temptation to ruin their lives and humiliate themselves on national TV--which, as it turns out, many can't. Despite initially high ratings, the premise soon wore thin--probably because nobody was being forced to eat bugs--and after two more increasingly unpopular seasons, Temptation Island met its end with a whimper rather than a bang. These days it's almost wholly forgotten, even despite the lasting effect it's had on my cynicism, and this modest paragraph is virtually the most information you can even find on it in any one place without a truly exhaustive web search. Good riddance to bad reality, I say.
2. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
Having grown up primarily in the Northeast, I'll admit to harboring a modicum of deep-seated uneasiness about the very idea of the Deep South. I can't help it; for all of New England's faults--and there are many--at least I never have to see a Confederate flag waving, or be offered the deep-fried feet of any species of animal. Luckily for those like me, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo has adopted the solemn task of ensuring that we never second-guess our ingrained prejudice for even a moment. Following child beauty pageant contestant Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson and her mother June "Jabba the Hut" Shannon through their daily lives, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo reads almost more like a documentary on type-II diabetes than anything else. Audiences are encouraged to jeer as the monstrous little starlet eagerly consumes "Go-Go Juice"--a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew that turns my stomach even thinking about it--and proceeds to parade around in her grotesquerie. Originally a spin-off of TLC's Toddlers in Tiaras, a documentary series about child beauty pageants and the families that enter them, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was birthed after clips of the family's segment went viral on YouTube. Though arguably not as outrageous as some of the other series on this list, Honey Boo Boo has the distinguished honor of being more shameless in its cruelty than any show that precedes it. Viewers are openly encouraged to despise the Shannon family, to loathe them for their ignorance, to gawk in open-mouthed horror at the repugnance of their lifestyle. You almost have to pity little Alana Thompson, born into her family with no say in the matter, old enough to know she's a star but still far too young to fully grasp quite why. And when we collectively become desensitized to their antics, when our grim spectation shifts to Body Modification Disasters or Extreme Eating Disorders of South Beach and their fame dries up, Honey Boo Boo will have a long, hard road ahead of her indeed.
There are almost no words to describe my utter disgust with every facet of Bridalplasty. The basic premise of this nightmare is as follows: twelve average-looking brides-to-be leave their fiancees for the four months prior to their weddings, and compete to win as much free plastic surgery as they can by completing a series of challenges. At the end of each episode, the contestant whose transformation has been the least radical up to this point is eliminated from the competition, and the last woman standing after all the challenges wins an all-expenses-paid fantasy dream wedding, wherein her transformation is dramatically revealed when her groom lifts her veil and lays fresh eyes on his shiny new bride. The show ends when the viewer wakes up in a cold sweat and decides to watch some good, old-fashioned scripted television. To America's credit (for once in this article), viewers across the nation seem to have indeed woken up to Bridalplasty's basic odiousness, because despite fair ratings and a veritable avalanche of media attention, its first and only season debuted in 2011, and nobody's heard from it since. Still, Bridalplasty simply HAS to top the list because it's the pinnacle of socially irresponsible programming. Rather than simply find nauseating individuals and put them on display for viewers to ogle and ridicule--a la Honey Boo Boo or Bad Girls' Club--Bridalplasty chose instead to play Viktor Frankenstein, enticing otherwise average women with notions of glamour and fantasy, and transforming them into monsters for our perverse amusement. I, for one, find my faith in America bolstered a little bit by this show's early demise. If you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to go recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
This article was published by Private Island Entertainment LLC.
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