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Piles of Dookie - January 26
Gordon Pepper

Were you one of those kids who at Christmas Day came downstairs, eagerly awaiting presents? Well, I never did, because I'm Jewish, but every year in December, I was always looking forward to receiving a bunch of little presents for Hanukkah. As a bigger kid, I still enjoy my Hanukkah and New Year's gifts (I give out New Year's gifts as to not offend any specific religious group that my friends are in), but as a recapper, the times of cheer are at the start of each season. In this case, the season is January, so I got my gifts a little late this year.

This year, instead of finding gems, most of the things left by my television set would be the equivalent of dookie.

Dookie List: American Dream Derby, Sports Illustrated Model Competition, The Bachelorette, The Road To Stardom, The Will, Tilt (I know it's not a game, but it's based on a game and it's been a HUGE disappointment to me, so that's why it's here), Wickedly Perfect

There were some good shows though that made the good viewing list:

Good Viewing List: American Idol 4, Apprentice 3, Celebrity Fit Club,
Project Runway, The Entertainer

What happened?

We'll go through each case here one by one, but most of the dookie shows had the same three common problems. To summarize -

1. No Originality. Making two teams play a contest and then voting someone off at the end does not make it a Survivor-like hit. It just gives us the Same Old Same Old. Likewise, if one person decides someone's fate, let's see reasons why that aren't business oriented. Bring something new to the table. If you are bringing an idea that's already been done, then at least add a spin of your own to it.

For instance, Celebrity Fit Club, like The Biggest Loser, is about people losing weight, but it brings a whole new dynamic into it - the focus is on teams, and since no one gets eliminated and you win or you lose as a team, you see different and more fascinating gameplay than 'well if we lose, then I have to vote Joe off', etc. Project Runway has a dual competition with both the designers and the models, and it shows how they must work as a team in order to win. In addition, it adds a play along element when you see the best and worst designers and you have to select which is which.

Both Wickedly Perfect and The Biggest Loser are shows that votes people off, but they get voted off because of something they did that was detrimental to their performance on the show (either having the worst individual projects or being the person that lost the lowest percentage of weight). That rule saved the eventual champ, Ryan, because if it wasn't based on that, then he would have been eliminated quickly and the winner would have been someone who may not had done as well as Ryan. That twist worked - The Chain, the elimination process used on The Will, didn't, because the way that it worked (everyone picked someone to save until there was one person left. They were out, and they got to eliminate someone as well) guarantee that someone milquetoast would win the competition - not only would the loner be eliminated, but the loner would take out the head of the opposing alliance, leaving brainless sheep left to win. The first 5 minutes of Tilt was great, because you think that the show would be about people analyzing other people's play, which is things that you would expect to see in a casino. After that, however, it all went downhill and it turned to people spouting clichés and events that just aren't realistic.

If you are going to blatantly copy, then at least copy a winning formula. Dream Derby's two people who are up for elimination who pick the horses that they want to use is a great idea, but the way to get there (both people who win stunts select who goes, reminiscent of Race For The Altar) isn't, because it will always target the same outside group of people. The elimination process used by Sports Illustrated is almost a direct copy of…. Big Man On Campus or Fame! Yikes! And the Pendant challenge is almost identical to The Next Action Star's Screen Pass. If you are going to take concepts from low rated shows, you are going to wind up with a low rated show.

2. Likeable characters. If your show is based on someone, you better either make them likeable or show us a piece of how they tick. If the show is contestant driven, there better be a reason why we should find them compelling enough to watch for months.

There is no one better at doing this than American Idol. No one. If I say Ruben, Clay, Fantasia, William, Kelly, Justin, Joshua (and I can name at least 20-30 others), your head will instantly go to an image of the person that I am talking about, without even needing a last name. On this season, there's already been someone who pawned her jewelry, a metal band singer, and a blonde farm girl who make a lasting impression - not to mention the woman dressed as a giant strawberry and the woman who can sing using 5 different voices in her head. Idol is so good at creating a story for all of these people that it's no wonder that they receive the huge ratings.

Conversely, it doesn't matter how good something is - if none of the people are likeable or if the public (who do not like to be misled) smell that something isn't right or is too overacted, then you have a disaster on your hands. One of the Bachelor's biggest faux pas is that they never spend nearly as much time on the final two as they do on the outspoken people - the people who NEVER make the final two. The first five Bachelor(ette) contestants that I thought of - Trista, Bob, Leann, Krysta, Fabrice. None of them won the show as contestants and Fabrice may be opposite-sex challenged. Can you name all of the winners in the 8 editions of the show? Didn't think so. Can you name all nine of the Survivor winners? Sure you can - Rich, Tina, Ethan, Vecepia, Brian, Jenna, Sandra, Amber and Chris. That took me under a minute to type in all of the names.

None of the contestants in either Wickedly Perfect nor Sports Illustrated are very compelling, despite being the best in the field. The focus has been more on seeing their bad side than their good side, and the ratings reflect that. The Rebel Billionaire had more connivers than adventurers, and the cast members in Dream Derby, whose objective is to get rid of all of the threats, wind up having a bunch of people that make it hard to stomach getting a winner from said group. Then there's The Will, the latest show that only lasted one episode. NONE of the people were likeable, they were all seen as shrews, at least half of the cast weren't even family members, and most of them were also actor wannabes. I was getting fed up to the point that if they were all forced into a pool filled with piranhas, I would be rooting for the piranha, since seeing a show which would just be fish swimming in a pool for an hour would be far more entertaining.

We get a special aside for Tilt. We have the white bread good guy. The evil white con man. The you've-done-me-wrong-and-I-want-revenge law officer. The little blonde girl who had bad things done to her when she was growing up. The angry black man. The old wizened mentor with his own agenda. Do these all sound familiar? These aren't characters - these are clichés in both personality and speech, but none of these are in the real poker world. You want real characters? Get a black man who has one of the best minds in the game. Get some intellectual foreign-accented Europeans and Asians. Make the white people look like the wacky people with eccentricities. Make the women smart - smart enough to destroy anyone and not make them just a sexy side character. Get characters that are dumpy and frumpy and don't have every person look like they walked out of Bally's Gym and... Oh wait - we have that already in the real World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour.

Let's get to individual stars/judges that make or break a show. Burnett does it again with The Apprentice, a perfect example of this category. You may love him, you may hate his guts, but you watch to see the Boardroom, you watch to hear The Donald get into it with the contestants and you watch to hear his rationale for firing people. You know you do. You want to hear the sharp-tongued Carolyn as well. That's what makes a great show. You may not agree with Simon Cowell sometimes, and sometimes he hits below the belt, but I have almost never disagreed with him when has had constructive criticism on pitch, tone or style, and I am betting that neither have most people.

You also have the second sort of celebrity - the 'Love' celebrity. The one who still has to cut people, but they are fair and will help you. Tyra Banks is a great example. She will be firm, but she will be nice and help you physically, mentally and emotionally. I love Wayne Newton, becomes he comes across as the Anti-Vegas showman - he knows that feelings, as well as talent, is involved - and his talent far surpasses what Missy Elliott has. What's great about his show in the first episode is that instead of just saying why the booted contestant is leaving, he gives each person a positive reason for why they are staying, and what they have done right - and that's something you don't see on most reality shows.

As for the not so good celebrities? It's when they don't add much to their shows or when they come across so negative that you have to wonder what is going through the contestants heads. Joan Lunden is the host of Wickedly Perfect… and that's all she is. In The Biggest Loser, we see Caroline Rhea for around five percent of the show - where's Jeff Probst when you need him? Missy Elliott does have nice reasoning at the end of each show as to why the person didn't advance, but she sounds like a heartless witch for the first 59 minutes and I am wondering if the contestants had second thoughts after dealing with the first 2 episodes. The audience certainly did, as the ratings aren't coming anywhere near Tyra Banks.

3. Bring the drama - but don't let it overshadow why you are watching the show. Survivor is the daddy of the drama, but it's good because those interactions play a pivotal part of who sticks around and who gets voted at the end of the episode. Other drama which is bad overshadows the game play - I want to see why the style-makers in Wickedly Perfect are so good, but I have yet to see in 3 episodes anyone break down an individual project and explain what it is or does or how to make it.

One more thing to add - let the stunts be real-life parts of the show and give a purpose to it. Every task in the Apprentice has a skill that you could see someone applying to their business acumen just like every type of photo shoot in ANTM would be a good example of model fundamentals. Carrying weights around is good for The Biggest Loser - but explain why anyone in Dream Derby would get anything out of running with weights like a horse or looking in slop for horseshoes. The real entertainment of the show is the strategy in the handicapping and how to determine the good horse - but that is sorely overlooked and bypassed for most of the show in favor of cheesy stunts.

In closing, the problem has nothing to do with the reality genre dying - it's only that people are trying to put boring, cliché-filled non-compelling filler and call it entertainment. There is plenty of good ideas out there - the trick is to make them original, compelling, and relevant to the audience. Hopefully next Hanukkah - or summer, even - I will be finding a diamond in the rough instead of a dookie.

PS: This column is dedicated to the memory of Laura Seferian. She was not only a bowling teammate, she was a good friend of mine for years. Despite her death right before Christmas (hence the delay in the recaps, but they will all be completed) and the funeral on New Year's Eve, there was a full room of mourners throughout the week. Laura, I will always cherish the time that we have spent, and you have left the world making it a better place than before you came in it.

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