With apologies to Tom Jones, "Pussycats, pussycats, you're so silly, and young and frilly, if kind of cute -- so long as you don't flap those sweet little pussycat lips. What's new, pussycat?" Nothing new, really, as this CW competition series slavishly copies "America's Next Top Model," while failing to build interest in the nine finalists vying to be the one to join the Pussycat Dolls.

With apologies to Tom Jones, “Pussycats, pussycats, you’re so silly, and young and frilly, if kind of cute — so long as you don’t flap those sweet little pussycat lips. What’s new, pussycat?” Nothing, really, as this CW competition series slavishly copies “America’s Next Top Model,” while failing to build interest in the nine finalists vying to be the one to join the Pussycat Dolls — the Frankenstein-like created-in-the-lab, lingerie-wearing pop act. In that respect, the show plays like an extended commercial for the group that will prompt many viewers to uncontrollably mumble “Doncha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me” the next morning.

Skipping the mass audition phase, this series developed by Steven Antin and “Top Model’s” Ken Mok immediately pares the field to 18 candidates, cutting that roster in half by the premiere’s end. Current Dolls make cameo appearances while the contestants seek to master their singing, dance moves and gyrations, in some respects mirroring NBC’s tepid “Grease” contest.

But then, in a burst of faux drama, crisis strikes: An outbreak of stomach virus besets the gals, yielding the queasy sight of attractive young women vomiting, bringing to mind a fraternity kegger.

As with most such fare, the audience’s response will hinge partly on whether they care about the field of contenders. Yet if there’s fun (and not just voyeurism) to be had here, it’s largely undercut by the show’s dreadfully earnest tone.

Critics have also charged that the message sent by the Dolls further sexualizes and exploits teens and young women, whereas group creator Robin Antin maintains it’s actually empowering. Not surprisingly, there is no such second-guessing among the contestants, who exhibit all the requisite yearning for this breakthrough opportunity.

Even so, the one truly disingenuous moment deals with sexuality: The young women initially balk when asked to do a stripper-like routine at a nightclub, as if bouncing around in lingerie is appreciably different from the attire they sport the rest of the hour. Adding to the hypocrisy, Antin seeks to justify the exercise as a self-confidence test rather than what it is — lad-mag fare for those too cheap to buy Maxim — which might make skeptical viewers want to throw up as well.

In crass commercial terms, the concept appears calculated to entice “Top Model’s” audience, were it not for a sameness to the participants and lack of personality among the judges — who include Antin and Lil’ Kim — resulting in a rather bland stew. Mock her all you like, but the “fierceness” and flash of “Model’s” emotional host Tyra Banks is sorely missed.

Fortunately, for those who can’t take such fluff too seriously, Pussycat lead singer Nicole Scherzinger delivers a few grand moments of Paula Abdul-like comedy, advising the girls, “Sing loud, sing proud, and do everything from your heart.” Later, she gushes to one would-be Doll, “I love your essence. I love your rawness. I love you.

In that at least, whatever its feminist transgressions, “Pussycat Dolls” unwittingly delivers a powerful educational message: Stay in school, girls, or you might end up sounding freaky like her.

Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll

CW, Tues. March 6, 9 p.m.

Production

Produced by 10 x 10 Entertainment, Wonderland Sound and Vision, Interscope Records/Pussycat Dolls in association with Warner Horizon. Executive producers, McG, Steven Antin, Robin Antin, Jimmy Iovine, Ron Fair, Ken Mok, Laura Fuest; co-executive producer, Peter Johnson; supervising producer, Bechara "Bicha" Gholam; producers, J. Paul Buscemi, Anna Mastro; senior story producer, Ryan Simpkins; lead director, Brad Kreisberg; director, Kevin Tancharoen;

Crew

camera, Mark Jungjohann; editors, Laura Rosow, Rick Weis; music, Jeff Lippencott, Mark T. Williams; casting, Michelle Mock-Falcon. 60 MIN. Host: Mark McGrath. Judges: Lil' Kim, Ron Fair, Robin Antin

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