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Tuned In: Reality TV breaks up usual summer fare

Thursday, June 26, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

June is usually a month of broadcast network reruns and cable premieres, but this June is not usual.

Over-the-air networks have been premiering reality shows right and left. Here's a sampler:

"The Amazing Race" (8 tonight, CBS): This has always been one of the standout reality series, offering amazing scenery with fast-paced competition.

Never as big a ratings hit as "Survivor," "Race" has not had as many viewers running to the television, which is a shame because it's a better bet to entertain than most of the other redundant reality shows.

"Last Comic Standing" (9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC): Among new reality shows, this started out as my favorite. Some of the comics, particularly large-and-in-charge Ralphie Mays, are extremely funny and worthy of prime time.

But now that the 20 finalists have moved into a home together "Real World"-style, it's more contrived. There are still moments of comic brilliance -- I'm pulling for Mays and Dat Phan -- but too much nonsense gets in the way.

"Paradise Hotel" (9 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, Fox): At least the hotel looks cool. The show encourages tawdry behavior as male and female contestants must "hook up or get out." Rooms do come with two beds, but producers are clearly hoping only one will be used.

"Choose the man you want to share your room with," the Irish host says.

One contestant bragged in the premiere that he could do better than the woman who picked him. "I don't mean to be conceited, but I'm better than those two dudes," he said of the guys picked by the women he'd rather be with.

"Paradise Hotel" offers further proof that reality shows are cannibalistic: One of its stars, Toni, also appeared on Fox's "Love Cruise."

The show's setting is the most interesting thing about "Paradise Hotel," but its location is secret (somewhere in Mexico seems likely).

Its placement in the prime-time schedule is most inappropriate, as an informed viewer mentioned to me last week. He and his daughter were watching "American Juniors" -- a show with a large audience of children -- and kept seeing promos for "Hotel," which follows it. His 7-year-old had questions about the "Sex Hotel" show. Nice going, Fox, nice going.

"American Juniors" (8 p.m. Tuesdays and 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Fox): "American Idol" + children - nasty commentary = "American Juniors."

Since the catty comments from Simon Cowell make "Idol" worthwhile, "Juniors" is a snooze. However, Ryan Seacrest gets points for his compassionate handling of the kiddie contestants.

"Anything for Love" (8 and 8:30 p.m. Mondays, Fox): Perhaps the most pathetic and squirm-inducing of the new shows, this one claims to show "how far people will go to start, stop or save a relationship."

In the first episode, a woman married less than a year and separated from her husband tried to win him back by dressing up just the way he likes, as a stripper, and dancing for him in a mask.

In another segment, a jealous guy confronted his girlfriend after he caught her on a hidden camera giving her business card to another man. Shocking, huh?

Maybe it's not the show that's pathetic, just the people who participate in it.

"Fame" (8 p.m. Wednesdays, NBC): Debbie Allen cracks me up. Whether it's her scripted pep talks or her joshing with puffy-looking host Joey Fatone, she's a diva from way back.

But I'm bored with talent shows, so the competition is of no interest. Instead, it's fascinating to see how bad a host Fatone is. Whenever he attempts to say the word "cool," it consistently comes out, "coo."

Last week several readers called to complain they couldn't get through via phone to vote for their favorite "Fame" star. An NBC spokeswoman said that was due to "an overwhelming demand on the system," and she said, "We've made the appropriate adjustments."

"America's Next Top Model" (9 p.m. Tuesdays, UPN): I've caught only two episodes of this series, but what I've seen has been a pleasant surprise.

Yes, there are the expected inane comments from the would-be models. ("Look at all these foreign cars!" one contestant said during a trip to Paris on this week's episode. "I expected to see people on boats with violins," said another.) But who would have thought the big issue between the models would be religion? One contingent is Christian; the other group scoffs at their devotion.

Host Tyra Banks is articulate and unafraid to voice her opinion during judging sessions where one contestant is eliminated each week. She even stands up to brash former model Janice Dickinson, who bluntly observed, "you have no neck," to one of the women.

UPN has gotten good ratings for this show and has already put out a call for contestants for a second edition.

"Most Extreme Elimination Challenge" (9 and 9:30 p.m. Saturdays, TNN): Yes, this one's a cable show, but I just discovered it. Though sometimes cruder than necessary, this reworked Japanese game show is one of the funniest things I've seen on TV in ages.

Footage from Tokyo Broadcasting System's "Takeshi's Castle" is used, and American actors re-voice both the announcers and contestants, who compete in ridiculous challenges, including jumping from wobbly stone to wobbly stone in a muddy lake, running up a chute as fake boulders hurtle toward them and trying to remain balanced on spinning logs.

In its original state, "MEEC" would just be weird. With the addition of American voices and commentary, which brings to mind "Mystery Science Theater 3000," it's often hilarious.

In the premiere episode, a contestant declared he was playing "for all my homies in Battle Creek," which, coming from the mouth of a Japanese man, is strangely funny.

I laughed out loud at the show's use of the "Taco Bell Impact Replay," which showed a woman taking a particularly painful-looking tumble. She was fine, of course, but that didn't stop the announcer from declaring, "You can hear her spine snapping!"

It's just plain wrong ... and really, really funny.

Plug your ears!

I'll be guest host on WPTT-AM (1360) from 3 to 6 p.m. today while Doug Hoerth continues his vacation. It'll be three hours of TV talk, including local news from 3 to 4 p.m., prime time from 4 to 5 and a grab bag from 5 to 6 p.m.

Special guests will include WTAE news director Bob Longo in the 3 p.m. hour; Raphael Sbarge, one of the stars of CBS's Pittsburgh-set legal drama "The Guardian," at 4 p.m., and my Post-Gazette colleague Barbara Vancheri at 5 p.m.

Please call with your questions. The only thing worse than dead air would be listening to me ramble.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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