Unscripted TV has become all-too predictable

In its infancy, reality TV seemed edgy, even dangerous. CBS’ “Survivor” and “Big Brother” made a splash because it was unclear exactly how far they would go in conducting their “social experiments.” Critics fussed over whether this was the Roman Colosseum reborn — public electronic maiming for our collective amusement.

The excesses were occasionally mind-numbing, but (mercifully) never fatal. Yet a genre that had the benefit of looking fresh a mere decade ago has become TV’s most predictable, bringing us to a creative crossroads regarding where the form goes from here.

The innumerable variations on dating competitions, fashion/style elimination contests or tag-alongs with fading and/or pseudo-celebrities have grown stale and tediously alike. Adding kids to the mix proved kind of creepy. Knocking off hit movies has mostly flopped, from “Pirate Master” to horror premises like the CW’s “13 — Fear Is Real,” demonstrating that it’s hard to foster a sense of jeopardy unless you’re actually willing to kill nubile twentysomethings, as opposed to just mussing their hair.

The malaise plaguing unscripted programming hasn’t been lost on network executives. Fox Entertainment Prez Kevin Reilly acknowledged the conceptual inertia during the TV Critics Assn. tour, saying there are a lot of “versions of versions.” My preferred term for this is “but-with TV,” as in, “It’s a lot like ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ but with. … ” Fill in the blank.

A flurry of new programs in January produced what amounts to a mini-trend, inasmuch as the unifying element resembles one of the earliest reality programs, “Candid Camera,” by emphasizing hidden-camera trickery and goofing on ordinary folk.

CBS’ “Game Show in My Head,” NBC’s “Howie Do It” and ABC’s “True Beauty” all draw upon this idea, as did Fox Reality’s “Smile … You’re Under Arrest!” a distasteful hidden-camera sting operation meant to nab petty offenders. Even the cable network appeared embarrassed by that effort, burying its premiere between Christmas and New Year’s.

This month has also seen NBC introduce the but-withs “Momma’s Boys” (think “Meet My Folks”) and “Superstars of Dance” (the latest “Dancing With the Stars” clone), both of which have been, not surprisingly, ratings-challenged.

Oddly enough, Fox — the network that once could be counted upon to deliver reality TV’s most egregious stunts, spicing up a TV reporter’s humdrum life with lawsuits (“Temptation Island”), restraining orders (“Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?”) and critical tongue-lashings (“When Animals Attack,” etc.) — has been relatively sedate. Lately when the network has stuck its chin out transparently seeking to gin up controversy, few have taken the bait.

Fox’s last provocateur, the lie-detector series “Moment of Truth,” proved less offensive than promos made it look, given that the contestants were asked questions in advance before being grilled in front of friends, family and a studio audience. Despite solid ratings, the concept has been benched for an extended stretch, while the network tries again to make the whole scripted thing work by piggybacking on “American Idol.”

So where’s the answer? Fortunately that’s somebody else’s problem. Hidden cameras that capture genuine responses and human behavior — as opposed to the increasingly hard-to-believe posturing of wannabe actors — represents promising terrain to explore, but even there it’s difficult to conjure anything truly novel without embracing certain (and perhaps unacceptable) risks.

The larger mystery is why — with what amounts to a blank slate at their disposal — somebody hasn’t broken out of the invisible boxes currently restraining the form, even if that means potentially throwing open Pandora’s Box. Instead, the existing bag of tricks has been emptied, cloned and re-emptied again, leaving the audience ready for a next phase — presumably something that will heighten reality TV’s illusion of danger, without setting the insurance guy’s hair on fire (or hopefully anybody else’s).

What does seem clear is that after relying heavily on unscripted TV to buck up ratings and balance the cost of their schedules, networks can’t expect breakthroughs anymore by blithely returning over and over to “The Bachelor” and “Project Runway” but-withs. And while dramas and sitcoms haven’t reinvented the wheel either, reality TV is a uniquely 21st-century concoction, governed by its own set of rules.

In a hit-driven business, maybe it’s time for the reality tribe — and I say this with some trepidation — to grow a pair and starting breaking them.

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