Reality breeds familiarity

WHETHER YOU LOVE so-called reality television, hate it or love hating it, the onslaught of unscripted programs arriving this summer is thus far most noteworthy for just how tired, familiar and moribund those series feel.

In short, the reality tank has at least temporarily run out of gas.

This creative flatlining bears some thought. Even those prone to dismiss most reality (guilty as charged) grudgingly conceded the genre has been exciting, risk-taking, difficult to ignore. The most heinous strains burst out of newspaper arts sections and onto op-ed pages, yielding reams of breathless punditry wondering if their popularity signaled the apocalypse was coming, and if not why. Internet chat rooms lit up over multiple series with “Joe” in the title, from “Millionaire” to “Average” to “Schmo.”

Networks have hailed their deployment of reality TV as a solution to the post-May sweeps doldrums — original programming to chase away the summertime blues. Yet seldom have new episodes (or as the WB calls them, “fresh”) felt so unappetizingly stale, the net effect being primetime’s very own attack of the clones.

As a consequence, premiering this month is a whole lot of been there, seen that. Almost without exception, these new series play like thinly veiled variations on existing ones, with a twist so mild as to be nearly imperceptible. Held against this yardstick, a concept that pilfers from two shows simultaneously qualifies as imaginative.

CBS’ “The Cut,” for example, is a slavish recreation of “The Apprentice,” down to the music and “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” Manhattan locations, the one ostensible difference being that Tommy Hilfiger has better hair than Donald Trump. NBC will also peddle a taste of Kathy Hilton’s good life with “I Want to Be a Hilton,” which I haven’t yet seen but can’t imagine enjoying as much as daughter Paris’ Carl’s Jr. commercial.

Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” is another tiresome derby for dollars, importing a tantrum-throwing British chef to approximate the experience of sauteing scallops with Simon Cowell. That show appears to have been sold based primarily on the title, as was the WB’s “Beauty and the Geek,” a pun that seemingly initiated the search for an actual contest to go with it.

Among the few relatively fresh-looking ideas, meanwhile, is another U.K. transplant, ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” which would feel considerably fresher if Fox and VH1 weren’t knee-deep in similar concepts.

Confine this parade to one network and it might be easy to write off as a bad run at the creativity bank. Witness the same process occurring across the dial, and something’s up, though I’ll stop short of believing there’s a conspiracy to hasten the genre’s retreat. At least, for now.

Some of this blandness can doubtless be attributed to the habit of using the summer to engage in spring cleaning, as the networks jettison their more misguided purchases to help defray the costs.

A bigger-picture issue is that unscripted TV has reached something of a crossroads. After a run of “Can you top this?” concepts, execs found themselves unable to push too much further into unpleasantness, due less to moral concerns than the fact that provocative concepts like Fox’s adoption spec “Who’s Your Daddy?” met with a collective yawn from viewers and resistance from sponsors.

Those kind of wild swings also contributed to reality TV’s image problems, which aren’t insignificant. For all “Fear Factor’s” success, decrying its bug-eating antics has come to provide ready applause lines for congressmen who haven’t watched TV since the Nixon administration. Small wonder unscripted series again have a muted presence on the networks’ fall lineups, limiting new entries to the feel-good variety of ABC’s medical-themed “Miracle Workers” and NBC’s “Three Wishes,” which extends the makeover fantasy to small-town America.

It’s customary around this time for someone (usually a sitcom writer with a mortgage) to ask if “reality” will simply go away — a bit of wishful thinking failing to recognize that alternative fare has become an enmeshed part of the primetime firmament. Beyond demonstrating its hit potential, unscripted shows have become a key means of balancing primetime schedules, creatively and financially.

Nevertheless, the widget factory is clearly undergoing a slowdown, as evidenced by NBC’s decision to offer two versions of “The Apprentice” next season. Granted, Trump’s ego probably won’t allow him to sit one out while Martha Stewart occupies his boardroom chair, but airing both at once represents the sort of untidy mess Stewart would surely have tips to clean up if she wasn’t part of the problem.

ABC, for one, is broadly betting on a kinder, gentler reality formula, designed to assist families while simultaneously letting viewers feel superior (think “Supernanny”) as they assist them. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the network’s head of alternative programming, Andrea Wong, suggested reality must regularly reinvent itself, and characterized the next wave as “big, happy, shiny.”

If the goal is to keep a Golden Retriever distracted, that sounds about right. As for enticing an increasingly jaded audience, only time will tell, but in the interim, no one should be surprised when the tribe rapidly votes most of this summer’s castaways off primetime.

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