AS TRIUMPH THE INSULT Comic Dog would say, “OK, now they’re asking to be pooped on.”Purveyors of reality television have generally grinned and borne indignities from critics, acting magnanimous because the genre keeps swallowing ever-larger tracts of primetime. Besides, their guilty pleasures are virtually immune to negative publicity, so critical scorn needn’t be feared and can even become grist for network marketing mills. Nevertheless, producers such as Mark Burnett have begun returning fire, while execs at Fox exhibit a thin skin that ill befits the unscripted arena’s ascendant status. Consider that Fox has trotted out one reality series after another since New Year’s, without making any available in advance for review. And while last-minute editing is sometimes an excuse, it’s not like these artistic treasures are all getting fine-tuned right up until air. Nope, Fox is plainly hiding shows, concerned about being upbraided for dating shows like “Playing It Straight” (gay men pretend to be straight), “The Littlest Groom” (featuring little people) and “Forever Eden” (premise still a mystery after a month on the air). In doing so, the network is borrowing from the film world, where movies destined to be critically excoriated are sometimes released without advance screenings — thus delaying newspaper reviews until the film has an opening weekend under its belt. Around the Variety offices these are known as “boulevard movies,” a reference to the days when we schlepped down to Hollywood Boulevard to see them. Not that this strategy makes much sense for Fox, since barbs like “morally reprehensible” and “so stupid it’s hard to believe these people are real” merely entice many fans of unscripted TV. For this group, the only pejorative I can think of is “boring.” THEN THERE’S BURNETT, the ego that walks like a man. Suddenly Thursday night’s dominant player as the maestro behind “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” the producer paused at NBC’s pre-upfront presentation to say that “so-called critics” who doubted the latter’s viability because Donald Trump is a swaggering boob should contemplate retirement. Burnett quickly segued to his spiel for “The Contender,” a boxing concept backed by Sylvester Stallone that looks destined to do for pugilism what “The Restaurant” did for Italian food. (Burnett didn’t respond to an interview request, but given that he has a background as a commando or something, if I’m found with my neck snapped like a twig, I hope that someone thinks to interrogate him.) Railing against critics is certainly nothing new. It was only a few years ago that “Titanic” director James Cameron launched a retaliatory broadside after the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan critically torpedoed the film. More recently, NBC Entertainment and Cable chief Jeff Zucker flatly told a graying gaggle of TV scribes that those mired in a 1970s mind-set must adapt or hasten their own irrelevance. Fair enough, and as someone who broached the “Who’s gonna want to stare at that hair every week?” question regarding Trump, I’m willing to concede when my powers of prognostication falter. Yet it should be equally obvious that what’s popular isn’t always good, and that acknowledging change in the TV landscape doesn’t require liking what society stands ankle deep in as a consequence. Producers like Burnett and “The Bachelor’s” Mike Fleiss currently occupy TV’s driver’s seat, and they’re welcome to enjoy the ride. Indeed, I’ll even admit to finding “The Apprentice” compelling, albeit by employing TiVo’s fast-forward function to excise the portentous fat and reduce the viewing experience to a lean 17 minutes. STILL, COVETING CRITICAL validation borders on silly, inasmuch as such shows are programmed by execs who themselves often don’t fully understand their allure yet consider shame a luxury they can no longer afford. In that respect, criticism’s ability to prick nerve endings and stir consciences (which must exist somewhere at Fox, given its stealth premiere approach) at least represents a less draconian curb on excess than letting self-appointed keepers of decency serve as content nannies. Moreover, TV critics actually watch what they condemn, which is more than can be said for most government officials. By the way, Fox’s latest variation on the makeover craze, “The Swan,” premieres tonight, though tapes weren’t sent out. In the program, unattractive women undergo plastic surgery and workout regimens before competing in a beauty pageant. It’s tempting to provide Fox promotional fodder by calling it “Another exploitative signpost of our cultural superficiality,” but silly me, I feel obligated to see it first.
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