Is good reality TV possible?

Drew Scheeler, Film and Television Critic

Watershed Down

Are there any good reality shows left on television? Last week I received several responses to my review of ABC’s The Taste: I panned that show for its poor handling of even the most basic tropes of the reality genre and for bringing nothing new or interesting to a tired format. A close friend who read that article asked me if I could recommend just one reality show on television right now worth investing in. And, after several labored minutes of thoughts and verbal stalling as I sifted through the network schedules, I came to a sad realization: the best reality programs on television right now are flat-out parodies of the genre.

I present two shows to support this argument. The first is Spike TV’s The Joe Schmo Show. If you aren’t familiar with Schmo well, neither is its network. It is incredible that a network that broadcasts at least four hours of Repo Games a day is unable to advertise or reair what could have become its signature series. The original two seasons of The Joe Schmo Show aired back in 2003 and 2004 and lampooned the first wave of reality television. Season one establishes a basic formula for the series: one regular contestant, the Schmo, is thrust into the most outrageous reality show imaginable. Unbeknownst to the Schmo, the other contestants are trained improvisational actors, like Kristen Wiig who starred on the first season of Schmo before Saturday Night Live. The competitions are staged. Plots are scripted by actual writers. Just how many contrivances can one person handle before questioning their sanity? This current third outing, and its first series back from its ten year exile, features everyman Chase competing on The Full Bounty, a reality series looking to find America’s next great bounty hunter. If it sounds unbelievable, it is. Challenges often end with people getting tazered. And Dog The Bounty Hunter, the obvious inspiration for the competition, peaked in popularity a good five years ago.

Normally a ten year break would cut any momentum going for a series. But reality has changed significantly in this time and our new Schmo reflects this. This time out the cast is particularly wonderful as they play up the stock characters that audiences expect on modern reality shows. Jo Newman’s turn as Karlee, the token deaf contestant, channels Marlee Matlin’s appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice a few years ago in the best possible way. And Fred Cross plays Stan, Karlee’s interpreter, with such conviction that you too might feel your hand twitch along to his earnest signing. But Karlee slips up sometimes. And the producers constantly underestimate Chase’s ability to win contests that have been stacked against him. Chase will tazer anything that gets in his way. Another inspired choice is featuring campy D-list actor Lorenzo Lamas, the former star of the bounty hunter syndicated crapfest of early ‘90s awesomeness Renegade. Lamas plays Lorenzo Lamas with such a fiery conviction that it’s hard to believe his career as a dramatic actor has stalled when his self-depreciation reveals a deft hand at comedic timing and sensibilities.

But, most importantly, The Full Bounty gives comedian and Family Guy voice actor Ralph Garman a chance to come back as the host for the third time as the “nationally famous” bail bondsman Jake Montrose. Each improvised line Garman delivers is inspired. Garman constantly propels the show forward while remaining believable. Quite simply, in a strong cast Garman remains this series’ best asset. In next week’s finale Chase will finally learn that the only real part of the series has been himself. But no one can question the talent shown this season: I see bright futures for everyone involved.

My second choice for best current reality show isn’t actually on television. Yahoo has been premiering two episodes of Burning Love each week, perhaps the greatest extended pastiche and parody of a single show in the history of recorded culture. Burning Love is a scripted version of The Bachelor/Bachelorette starring comedians and featuring plots so contrived that you can see ABC executives get excited over activities and dates they can steal for next season. Any fan of the last fifteen years of comedy will recognize a cast member from the current season: Adam Scott, Michael Cera, Martin Starr and Paul Scheer are among equals.

Perhaps we have finally reached a critical point with how our society responds to reality shows. Just how long will it be until we can abandon the common contestants and replace them with talented actors ushering in a new era of scripted reality programs that the producers of Laguna Beach and The OC could never have predicted? Any step away from the Real Housewives of the Kardashians is a step in the right direction.