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TV Review: Hard to tell who's the real schmo in new series

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Is "The Joe Schmo Show" a cruel hoax?

Absolutely.

But is it the hoax that makes Mt. Lebanon's Matt Kennedy Gould look bad, or is it his own behavior? That's a more difficult question to answer.

Matt Kennedy Gould of Mt. Lebanon, center, awaits an eviction vote with fellow contestants Brian (Brian Keith Etheridge), left, and Hutch (David Hornsby) in the faux reality show "Joe Schmo." (Janet Van Ham, Spike TV)


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"The Joe Schmo Show"

WHEN: 9 tonight on Spike TV

STARRING: Matt Kennedy Gould

Spike TV's "Joe Schmo" is the latest in humiliation television. Gould thought he applied to be on a regular "reality" show called "Lap of Luxury." But all the other contestants are actors performing the roles of stereotypical reality show contestants. Only the unsuspecting Gould doesn't know it's all about fooling him.

The actors are working from a script outline, and all the competitions are rigged. It's sort of a real-life "Truman Show."

The game itself is completely over-the-top, with a smarmier than usual host (Ralph Garman) and contestants fulfilling all the types, including Hutch the jerk (Carnegie Mellon University grad David Hornsby, "The Mullets"), Molly the virgin (Angela Dobson) and Kip the gay guy (Lance Krall, "The Downer Channel").

The competitions are taken to unbelievable extremes, even by this genre's low standards. In tonight's two-hour premiere, the house guests play "Hands on a High-Priced Hooker" in which contestants must put a body part against an adult film star. Gould has to grope a breast. The last person with his or her hand on the woman wins "Lord of the Manor" and can't get voted out at the "Riches to Rags Eviction Ceremony."

"One of you is about to say goodbye to high society and return to your sad existence working for the man," the host says at the first ceremony. Each "contestant" is represented with his or her photo on a plate. When the first eviction occurs, the host smashes the plate of the evictee in a fireplace, declaring, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, you're dead to us. Please leave."

What Gould says in on-camera interviews, the same diary-style confessionals as on "Survivor" and sundry other reality shows, is often worse than any embarrassment the producers cause. Of course, on a regular reality show, his comments would be mixed with those of other contestants. Here, it's all about him.

In discussing a competition that required Gould to wear skimpy women's underwear, no one put a gun to his head and forced him to express indelicate details about his appearance and his efforts to improve it. Just as no one forced him to declare, "Who would have thought putting on Molly's underwear would be fun, but it was very freeing." Rigged or not, he said those things.

The actors playing contestants may do more damage to their careers. The first person voted off at the end of tonight's second hour delivers a farewell speech that is too far over the top, an obvious parody of Susan Hawk's soliloquy at the end of the first "Survivor." Gould is taken aback by the similarity.

Other actors forget dialogue, character motivation and background, and one of Gould's decisions in a competition catches producers completely by surprise, forcing everyone to scramble. Unknowingly, Gould briefly turns the tables on the entire production.

So "Joe Schmo" has me morally conflicted. On the one hand it's reprehensible and unusually cruel to deceive a person for 10 hours on national television. Then again, anyone who signs on for one of these shows ought to be prepared for that. The twist has become the hallmark of reality TV, especially after "Joe Millionaire" aired in January ("Joe Schmo" taped in June). And regardless of any moral quandaries, "Joe Schmo" is a funny show.

Does Gould try too hard -- to be cool, to get attention? Sometimes, yes. But he mostly comes off as an honest person who cares about the feelings of others.

Will he be humiliated? Probably. But at least he can take some measure of pride in this: He's the only honest thing about "Joe Schmo."


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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