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Reality Can Be Cruel, And So Can Reality TV
December 12, 2007  | By David Bianculli
Don't blame the month-long Writers Guild of America strike, and the growing scarcity of scripted programming, for tonight's premiere of CW's Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants. That mother-daughter competition was in the works long before the strike. As to what's around the corner, you ain't seen nothing yet.

My advice, on the whole, is to keep it that way.

You might think, given tonight's season finales of CW's America's Next Top Model, Fox's Kitchen Nightmares and CBS's Kid Nation, that unscripted shows might be vanishing almost as much as scripted ones. No such luck. I'd tell you what's around the corner in January, but it's too depressing. Suffice it to say that even before the New Year gets here, ABC gives us a week-long game show named Duel, while NBC gives us a new singing-competition series called Clash of the Choirs.

And then there's Crowned.


Eleven mother-daughter pairs are asked, in tonight's inaugural episode (at 9 ET), to adopt a name for their team, and select suitable costumes. One team, 50 percent short on ego, calls itself "Hot and Not." Another team, insulting itself accidentally, adopts the name "Skin Deep." Yet another, intending to invoke stealth tactics but instead evoking something else entirely, goes by the name "Silent but Deadly."

That paragraph, I fear, makes Crowned sound more entertaining than it is. So does any description of the "de-sashing" ceremony at the program's climax. The truth about Crowned, though, is that it's 80 percent mean-spirited, at least 90 percent derivative, and a 100 percent waste of time.

Reality shows, these days, are assembled like prime-time Mad Libs. Swap a noun here, insert a slight variation there, and presto: another show. No matter how many of them are cranked out, they seem to come in only two basic flavors: inspirational or exploitive. Instructive or mean.

The Amazing Race, which has won the Emmy every year a reality competition series has been eligible for one, is one of the good guys. No less so than when watching My Name Is Earl, viewers of Race witness the consequences of good and bad karma. Beauty and the Geek is instructive, too, and so are Survivor, The Apprentice, Project Runway, even Kitchen Nightmares.

Most of the rest, though, including Crowned, are designed more to amuse viewers by encouraging laughter, shock or pity at the expense of the subjects. They're easy to concoct, cheap to make, and as simple to discard as disposable diapers if they don't catch on. Many times, the smell is similar.

At the end of the 1950s, so many Westerns filled prime time (the astonishing high point was 31 different weekly shows in 1959) that the genre collapsed under its own overpopulated weight. As the strike of 2007 continues, and reality TV spreads like kudzu, that's about all viewers can hope for in terms of relief.

That, or the modern equivalent of another Darwinistic course-correction from the '50s, the quiz-show scandal. But this generation's reality shows have had their scandals already (two words: Darva Conger), and not even that could stop the avalanche of reality TV.

Today, TV fans purchase and treasure DVD sets of The Honeymooners and Lost, enjoying scripted shows old and new. Twenty years from now, whatever the format, will viewers be collecting and enjoying discs, downloads or holographs of I Love New York 2, Shot at Love with Tila Tequila or Party Mamas? (All of which, by the way, are reality shows televised tonight, on VH1, MTV and WE, respectively.)

Queen for a Day

I don't think so. When was the last time you watched an episode of Queen for a Day? That was a 1950s show awash in contestant humiliation - add a few daughters to the mix, and you're not far away from Crowned.

But take my advice: you should be.






Eileen Morgan said:

Your reference to "Queen for a Day" made me laugh out loud. As I recall, these down on their luck contestants all had heart-rendering tales of woe and the inevitable family member needing an operation. It's almost high camp compared to the vengeful behavior on the current crop of reality shows.

The continual proliferation of reality shows is a very sad commentary on the state of American culture. There was a time when there were wonderful tv movies being produced on a regular basis; the quality was so high that many of them could have been theatrical releases. Roots, Rich Man-Poor Man, Holocast, the Winds of War, to name but a few.

We can only hope a turn-around occurs. It's a pity more shows like "Mad Men" aren't being written and produced.

Comment posted on December 12, 2007 12:17 PM

Asa said:

"Queen for a Day" actually was revived sometime in the past decade (on Lifetime, IIRC)...for what seemed like, well, a day.
And yes, I'll concur with Eileen's comment, whatever happened to the original [broadcast] network television movie?

Comment posted on December 13, 2007 1:03 AM

John said:

Those reality shows are definitely not "unscripted," and I think it's a sham (and a shame) to call them that. They're just not scripted by real writers.

Comment posted on December 14, 2007 1:08 AM

Rachel Miller said:

I've listened to you on NPR for several years, and always appreciate your take on the state of TV - I'm still resisting the siren call of cable, so I don't get to see some of the better creations out there, (unless I go sponge off my friends who do shell out the big bucks!)
but I love your commentary, and I'm looking forward to reading the blog. On a personal note, I would love to see Homicide back on the air, but NBC was way too timid to keep something so obviously intelligent around.
That show was beyond amazing....
I'm glad that I finally decided to check out your website, and it's bookmarked already. Keep up the great work, because I sure need a break from the current reality of Dumbya!

Comment posted on February 11, 2008 8:59 PM

Mary Jo Chandler said:

How I miss those great game shows of the 50's & 60's. I was fortunate to be a Teen Queen For A Day in April of 1963!! It was my 15 minutes of fame, but a lifetime memory. To attend the Academy Awards and watch Sidney Pottier win was unforgettable. I only wish that I could get a copy of that show so that my kids and grandkids could see what reality really was. I love this site. I hope to hear from former Queen for a day ladies. Thank you, Mary Jo Chandler (How great! Nice to hear from you, too! -- David B)

Comment posted on April 3, 2008 7:19 PM

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