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Giving 'reality' a black eye

Picture this: You hire an entire neighborhood of extras for one practical joke; you cull the next king of wrestling from a cattle call. They didn't used to call this reality. . .

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 21, 2001


photo
[Photo: MTV]
World Wrestling Federation star Al Snow holds down Maven Huffman, one of 230 competitors vying for a WWF contract in MTV’s WWF Tough Enough.
Pop quiz: What's the surest sign that those who craft "reality TV" shows are scraping the bottom of the creative barrel?

A) MTV debuts a series that trains 13 people in the sweet science of being a World Wrestling Federation star -- in a transparent ripoff of the formula that fueled ABC's Making the Band series -- with a big-time "rasslin" contract handed to the most accomplished "athlete."

B) NBC offers a thinly veiled Candid Camera copy dubbed Spy TV, which serves mostly as an example of the depths to which a network will sink when summertime doldrums kick in.

C) All of the above.

If you guessed A or B, try again.

It should be no surprise that NBC, the last network to jump into the "reality TV" arena, would be stuck with mediocrities like Fear Factor and Spy TV. Still, it's a little jarring to see the network of The West Wing and Frasier stoop to recycling old movie stunts and Candid Camera gags.

The setup of Spy TV is simple enough. Unsuspecting subjects are set up by friends or loved ones for pranks of an outrageous and particularly vicious nature, supposedly suggested as a revenge fantasy of some sort.

Ed co-star Michael Ian Black hosts this hodgepodge of video pranks, loosely copping a Mission: Impossible-style espionage theme in which "highly-trained operatives" carry out the show's in-your-face stunts. Judging by their camera-ready looks, the only training this crew may have gotten is at a New York modeling school.

Black said in an interview Friday that the Ed story line where his character (wacked-out bowling alley manager Phil Stubbs) leaves to host a reality show -- a brutal satire of the genre, which applies tellingly to Spy TV -- was a coincidence. Still, the coincidence is priceless.

The first episode features one showcase stunt -- which producers say cost $50,000 to create -- in which an unsuspecting guy who thinks he's a passenger on a test drive for a new car winds up speeding through a suburban neighborhood with a Hollywood stunt driver behind the wheel.

In reality -- and, as with all "reality TV" shows, we use this term loosely -- everyone in the neighborhood is an employee of the show, with stunt people playing bicyclists and other motorists bowled over by the driver.

Eventually, amid heated demands from the subject (producers call him "the mark") that he pull over, the stunt guy stops the car and bails, leaving the subject to face fake cops who eventually show the whole thing was a hoax.

Perhaps recent admissions that producers recreated some scenes in Survivor has made me cynical, but the mark in this stunt doesn't seem all that relieved when he sees his friends -- making me wonder how genuine this scenario actually was. (Producers maintain they pulled the stunt with three different people, picking the best one for tonight's show).

"I think the stunt driver was told, if it got to the point where the guy looked like he was going to jump out of the car, then stop immediately," said David Goldberg, president of Spy TV production company Endemol Entertainment USA, which also produces Fear Factor and developed last year's hopeless version of CBS' Big Brother. "We all wanted to be responsible."

Um, yeah. Which is why one of the other stunts features a guy in fake casts pretending to be trapped in an out-of-control motorized wheelchair.

Another confusing stunt, nabbed from a TV station in Korea, features a guy walking down a path, only to see explosions set off near his feet. (Goldberg couldn't remember where the footage came from, though he was sure the guy wasn't dodging real explosions. Whatever.)

This all comes at a time when legislators and parents are still howling about the possible copycat effects of stunt shows such as MTV's Jackass, which some parents have blamed for inspiring incidents where teens set themselves on fire or tried to jump over a moving car.

(Goldberg also said NBC eliminated several stunts that could have been considered dangerous or inspired copycatting, including some involving fire. What kind of stunts, specifically? He couldn't remember. Whatever.)

What this all adds up to is yet another attempt to sell America on a watered-down version of the extreme stunt/hidden camera shows aired in foreign countries. One show I saw years ago from Japan featured several men drinking beer and jumping around; the last guy to hit the bathroom won. Quality TV entertainment for sure.

If there's any justice in the world, even the legions of young viewers who made Jackass a hit for MTV will pass this one up. But I wouldn't bet next week's pay on it.

WWF Tough Enough is a different sort of derivative, applying the train-for-stardom concept that powered ABC's Making the Band and the WB's Popstars, only with a different focus: finding the next wrestling superstar.

In tonight's hourlong "casting special" (which not so coincidentally airs just after the conclusion of WWF Smackdown! on UPN), viewers see the process by which 5,000 applicants are weeded down to 230 semi-finalists who face judges from MTV and the WWF. By the episode's end, the 230 people will be whittled down to 13 finalists vying for a WWF contract through Boot Camp-style training tests over 12 half-hour episodes.

Anyone who has watched 10 minutes of Survivor knows the formula: Contestants are isolated in a house, subjected to stressful physical and emotional tests and encouraged to spill their guts about the experience to a battery of cameras dogging their every move.

Old hat for anyone who has turned on a television in the past year, WWF Tough Enough will feel like a Happy Days rerun to MTV fans, who have been watching this style of real people soap opera since The Real World's debut 10 years ago. Wrestling enthusiasts can keep an eye peeled for WWF stars such as Triple H, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Tazz and others who will help train these young hopefuls.

Scenes of WWF stars yelling at the finalists, like some bizarre Scared Straight video, feel more like a Saturday Night Live parody than real programming.

And spending an hour to show how producers sorted through a pile of losers to produce a baker's dozen of halfway attractive semi-finalists (yes, one of the female contestants used to be a stripper), seems a bit, um, excessive.

Since the level of viewership required for success on cable is so much lower than network TV, expect WWF Tough Enough to survive on the strength of Total Request Live fans who always wondered how the Rock does those cool flying kicks and fake punches.

But the nation's TV-watching public will probably feel their collective IQs slipping with every minute of exposure to these crass reality TV experiments. Suddenly, a summer filled with Frasier reruns doesn't seem that bad, after all.

To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at http://www.sptimes.com.

At a glance

WWF Tough Enough makes its debut with an hourlong "casting special" at 10 tonight on MTV. Grade: C-. Rating: TV-PG. Spy TV makes its debut with a special preview at 8:30 tonight on WFLA-Ch. 8. Subsequent episodes will air at 8 p.m. Tuesdays beginning next week. Grade: D. Rating: TV-PG.

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