The Five: The reality shows you should be watching
Fortunately, all reality shows are not the same. I mean, would Tim Gunn be involved in anything that wasn't a class act? Shows like Project Runway and, to some extent, The Amazing Race redeem an otherwise unfortunate genre littered with wife-swaps, cat fights, strangers picked to live in a house and competitive testicle eating. There is plenty of good among the bad, and in my neck of the woods, certain reality shows are as much "must see TV" as any scripted program. I'm looking for the same thing in both anyway - emotional truth.
Great television writers know how to make their characters real; reality shows tend to make the mistake of turning real people into characters. Every once in awhile though, a complex human being or honest relationship shines through the confessionals, the challenges and all the other trappings of the genre.
I'm here to highlight the reality shows that you should be watching - the guilt-free, classy end of the Mark Burnett spectrum. (I should add that I skipped over shows like Project Runway in favor of shows that don't get as much attention here on TV Squad.)
1. Ego Trip's White Rapper Show
First up, this show gets points for putting together the most untelegenic group of people I've ever seen. Forget Ugly Betty. Forget Beauty and the Geek. This group is for real. Man, they are a rough bunch, but you've got to give them credit for sticking it out on this show. Ego Trip is putting them through the hip-hop credibility ringer. This show is a Chappelle sketch blown up into series format. Every nook and cranny is crammed with clever detail. When one of the contestants got immunity for a week, he was handed a "ghetto pass." When Persia used the "n-word," she was made to literally bear the weight of the word around her neck in the form of a gigantic chain. The best bit has to be what happens when someone gets voted off the show. In the old gang tradition, their sneakers are thrown up onto a electrical wire outside the group's South Bronx digs. Now, I don't have much to say about these cats' rapping abilities, but the show, itself, is a genuine hip-hop history lesson worth a look.
2. Beauty and the Geek
I've sung the praises of Beauty and the Geek before, and I'll keep on singing them. The self-described "social experiment" is out to prove one thing - that we're all complex human beings - a little bit beauty and a little bit geek. This season, in-fighting among the girls has threatened to derail the show's mission of personal growth, but every episode still manages to appeal to the sap in me. Seeing the charming Mario wrestle with self-loathing in the face of having to choose a wardrobe from Kitsons, a store bound by Beverly Hills' city ordinance not to carry anything in his size, or Nate exclaim that he knew "the geeks were beauties all along" is liable to make even the hardest heart soften.
Technically, this show is in hiatus, but I couldn't help but include it. Each episode of the MTV series focuses on one high schooler who wants to "be made" as in "made into a the prom queen," "made into a opera singer," "made into a dancer," "made into a BMX biker," etc. Usually, what the kids want to be "made" into goes against type. The prissy girl wants in with the rugby players. The shy, nebbish kid wants to become a cheerleader. Made provides the kid with a coach, training and a goal that can be reached in a three to six month period.
The show has its cliches. At some point during his or her training, the kid comes to resent the coach, a fight ensues and apologies must be made. The change in the kids' priorities inevitably affect his or her schoolwork, friends or family - usually in a negative way. It's amazing how unsupportive your friends can be at that age especially if your dream means shifting out of one clique and into the proximity of another.
Despite its contrivances, there are three reasons that I love this show. 1. There are no short cuts. The only way these kids achieve anything is through hard work. It shows us all that we have the capacity to change if we're willing to make certain sacrifices. 2. The show's editing is held together by the kids speaking about their experiences in retrospect, and more often than not, the kids are articulate, self-aware and very funny. 3. The kids aren't always "made." Not all of the show's participants reach their goals. What they do achieve is self-knowledge, confidence and sometimes just learning that their dreams weren't where they expected them to be. Seeing someone win or lose has never been as gratifying as it is on Made.
4. Top Chef
I got hooked on Top Chef through a weekend marathon, and while I'm not big into food porn, I have to say that, as a group, chefs are pretty darn compelling. Chefs have their own weird work ethics, codes of honor and ideas about leadership and camaraderie. It's the camaraderie part that led to a bizarre, frat-ish incident this season in which four of the five remaining competitors got drunk and decided to shave their heads. They, then, brilliantly decided to wrestle the sleeping odd man out to the floor and shave his head, too. While they weren't being filmed at the time, they decided to tape it all on a producer's camcorder. It was a pretty sick, stupid incident, and if it were up to judge Tom Colicchio, every single one of them - except for the victim - would have been booted.
5. American Chopper
Nope, I don't really give a rat's ass about how a motorcycle is put together, but at its core, this show is about family. You've got the burly, atypical father figure Paul Sr. and his two sons - the chopper mechanic with an artists' eye that drives him crazy, Paul Jr., and the slacker doofus who makes him laugh, Mikey. And, he's got a dog. They all work together doing something that makes them happy. We should all be so lucky.