6 things to watch for this fall in reality TV
As reality TV approaches its 15th year of post-Real World maturity, the genre has a wide range of programs, from the stupid and scripted to the artful and insightful. Amid the clutter--this fall will see many new and returning reality TV shows on cable and broadcast--there are many highlights. Here are six things worth watching.
Survivor and Amazing Race swap players and twists
"Survivor" (Sept. 24) is on a streak: there's been season after season of solid, unpredictable game play along with a continued commitment to high-quality storytelling and production. Executive producer and host Jeff Probst, and the network, will try to keep that streak going by returning to last fall's Blood vs. Water format, which worked well, and by ditching the mostly loathed Redemption Island and replacing it with Exile Island.
But they've also made some questionable casting decisions. John Rocker, the former baseball player best known for his bigoted ranting, has been cast along with his girlfriend for some inexplicable reason. The "twinnies" from "Amazing Race" will also appear. Perhaps once they’re outside of the hands of "Amazing Race"'s editors, who tend to reduce contestants to a single note, and once they’re separated on opposite tribes, Natalie and Nadiya Anderson will win over their detractors who find them to be obnoxious.
Meanwhile, "The Amazing Race" (Sept. 26) has Whitney Duncan and Keith Tollefson, best known for having an affair on the South Pacific season that ended Whitney’s marriage, will race around the world. The 25th race actually began in public, in Times Square, with the introduction of a new twist, which is basically a "Survivor"-style immunity idol for the team that checks in first on the first leg.
A makeover show with purpose
Lately, it seems that every cable network gives their most obnoxious stars (see: "Dance Moms" Abby Lee Miller in "Abby's Studio Rescue") a makeover show, most of which are paint-by-numbers. Gordon Ramsay both perfected and ruined this format, on BBC's "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" and Fox's awful "Kitchen Nightmares," respectively. The formula: A loudmouth personality goes in, yells at the owners of the business for a bunch of things that should have been really obvious, gives the staff half-assed training, has a team of people put a coat of paint on the walls along with some products paid for by sponsors, and then leaves. Often, those businesses still fail.
CNBC's "The Profit," which returns, Oct. 14, is not that show. Instead, it's more like "Shark Tank," as Marcus Lemonis invests his own money in troubled businesses. He's not shy about how he takes advantage of their situation, but he also creates real, meaningful change. That doesn't happen in 48 hours,
Earlier this summer, when the cult favorite but business disaster Crumbs Bakery filed for bankruptcy, Lemonis and his business partners rescued the company, and he now plans to integrate brands he acquired on "The Profit" into that business. It was real-world proof that Lemonis isn't just TV personality, though his personality creates great TV.
Talented kids + tough judges = surprisingly good TV
The biggest surprise from Fox's reality TV last fall was not the baffling decision to keep "The X Factor" alive for a third, post-Britney Spears season, but "Masterchef Junior," a cooking competition starring insanely talented kids. Their talent, passion, and personalities easily outshone the show's hosts/judges, Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot, who treated them pretty much like they treat normal "Masterchef" competitors, showing that these kids were truly on the level of adult chefs. The November return of this series will likely bring more of the same much-needed life to an otherwise slow and so-so format.
The risky Utopia
Other networks have attempted their own versions of Big Brother, but Fox's version of Big Brother creator John de Mol's latest series lacks nearly everything that those shows had. There's no competition, no challenges, no host, no rewards, no punishments. Instead, it's just 15 people trying to form a society on five acres--without plumbing or electricity but with the ability to interact with the outside world to make money or otherwise sustain their society.
Based on the drama that occurred on the first two days alone, producers will have plenty of material to turn into episodes, and that's good because Fox has given two of its limited number of prime-time hours a week to the series, which could run for an entire year.
A pay cable channel's first reality show
Starz's first attempt at a reality series may not have the best, most descriptive name--"The Chair" sounds like it should be about execution, not directing and filmmaking--but from its premise to its exceptional cinematography and editing, it's a very successful series.
The show borrows heavily from executive producer Chris Moore's earlier series, "Project Greenlight" (shortly after Starz announced "The Chair," HBO announced the return of "Greenlight"), which followed the process of making a film. "The Chair" has cast two directors, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, each of whom will direct a Pittsburgh-set version of the same script. Moore returns and while he initially seems less gruff than he famously was on "Greenlight," he often serves as the show's antagonist, as it breaks the fourth wall to talk about the construction of both the TV show and the films.
One of the show's executive producers is "Star Trek" star Zachary Quinto, who steps into the mentor role Matt Damon and Ben Affleck filled--and will reprise--on "Greenlight." But really, they're on their own, and take very different paths to producing very different movies. There's internal and external conflict, and it's presented in episodes that have strong narrative arcs and are visually interesting.
Whether or not the two films--"Not Cool" and "Hollidaysburg"--are successful critically or at the box office remains to be seen, but the reality series has successfully documented the process of their creation.
The best fake reality series returns
HBO's prescient "The Comeback" makes its own comeback in November. The scripted series, which follows a fictional sitcom star's return to television as she's followed by reality TV cameras, doesn't pretend to be a reality show, like "Duck Dynasty" does, but somehow manages to be more real than a lot of reality TV.
Lisa Kudrow's fully realized and unbelievably awkward character Valerie Cherish only lasted 13 episodes, but they were a near-perfect 13 episodes, showing us the raw footage that was to be used to create Valerie's own reality show. The episodes' arc concluded with Valerie seeing the highly manipulated edited version of that footage, with all of her desperate, needy attempts to control her image resulting in something far worse than reality. Through it all, Kudrow humanized Valerie in surprising ways.
In the nine years since, "The Comeback" has remained an incisive look at the way reality TV is produced and the way cameras affect a person's behavior. Based on early clips, it seems like Valerie will be just as entertaining and inadvertently insightful when she returns to television.