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Television / Howard Rosenberg

TV's idea of keeping it real could use a make-over itself

November 15, 2002|Howard Rosenberg

Television continues to hemorrhage "reality" shows, hour after hour of life so raw and ferocious that you want to take to your bed and pull the covers over your head.

How much more of this tenaciously gritty realism can America handle?

Arriving Thursday on ratings-challenged ABC, for example, is "Extreme Makeover." That's right, pal, extreme! No half measures here. Clamp on your seat belts and cast your peepers on a trio of physically imperfect subjects who, we're assured, will be reconfigured in ways that will "ultimately redirect their destinies." Yes, their destinies!

The hour won't be pretty.

Think nose jobs, plus brow and under-eye lifts. Think liposuction, a chin implant, a breast implant and -- brace yourself -- one of those grisly tummy tucks.

But kids, don't try this at home.

Nor "Love by Design," the new "reality" series on Home and Garden TV that works like this: Someone chooses a date from three prospects, sight unseen and based solely on their home decor, and then -- in a display of realism almost too brutal to witness -- helps redecorate the place before the owner arrives home.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 438 words Type of Material: Correction
"Extreme Makeovers" -- In Howard Rosenberg's column in today's Calendar section, the broadcast date for ABC's reality special "Extreme Makeovers" is incorrect. After Calendar's deadline, the network changed the date from Thursday to Dec. 11.

Talk about shining a light on the human condition. Why, just the thought of it gives me the chills.

Get serious.

Although symbolic of our times, the loopy "reality" mind-set is hardly new to television. It's been more than a decade since a psychologist called me with an idea for a series he insisted couldn't miss. Money in the bank. A cinch. It's name? "Suicide Squad."

Am I kidding? No more than he was kidding.

He hadn't hammered out the details, but said he'd need only a hotline and a fleet of TV-equipped vans for a series that would go like this: People leaning toward taking their own lives would be urged to call the show's counselors, who would do their best to dissuade them. But on those occasions when they failed, well, the show might as well salvage something from the tragedies. So call out the vans to videotape the suicides for America's viewing enjoyment.

"Suicide Squad" never materialized. Like many twisted visionaries, its creator was custodian of an idea before its time.

Instead of calling, many "reality" show wannabes now advertise their ideas to the media via e-mail. That's how I learned of John Surowy's proposed "Godfather Court," which he calls "comedic reality."

Comic something, anyway. Surowy would encourage actual civil litigants to lie while arguing their cases before judges who would be actors or actresses known for playing crooks on the screen, celebrities who had run-ins with the law and convicted criminals who had done their time.

Who said Winona Ryder wouldn't work again?

The e-mail that landed the loudest, though, came from Richard B. Vasquez, who is itching to hit the airwaves with "BUMS."

Is he on the level? Who knows. In any case, that he would even float such an idea is a reflection of the mood in television today.

A New Yorker, Vasquez says "BUMS" would "document the daily struggles of homeless people" by following six people hoping to survive harsh conditions on the streets of Manhattan for one month in January-February.

Participants in "BUMS," Vasquez wrote, would have no access to "money, food, shelter, bathroom facilities or any other resource unless ... acquired on the street." But they could beg for money to sustain themselves, and occupy homeless shelters "if they can indeed get in." Vasquez would let them also collect bottles and cans "to recycle and turn into money."

Surviving a month would earn a "bum" a cash prize. In case of more than one survivor, Vasquez says, "a bum will gain points by sleeping on the streets at night as opposed to a shelter, and also for sleeping in train stations without being asked to leave by police, and for begging larger amounts."

Sounds like a plan. At last, I thought initially, here was a "reality" proposal with some meat and social relevance. It was about time someone chronicled the plight of the nation's homeless. Except, it turns out, Vasquez has a tougher reality in mind. He'd have his participants be faux homeless.

That's right, he'd dress "everyday people" in clothes whose "worn appearance would help them assimilate easier to street life." They'd also get a day's worth of food, cardboard and a marker "to write signs for begging," and a cup for the cash.

At the end of each episode, they'd be asked: "Do you want to continue to be a bum?"

Not liking this at all is Donald Whitehead, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. It was Whitehead's group that led the fight against "Bum Fights: A Cause for Concern, Volume 1," a notorious video showing homeless people battling each other viciously and a "Crocodile Hunter" spinoff in which some of them are tagged like animals in the wild and taken away in vans.

"I don't think that exploiting the harsh life of someone experiencing homelessness should be part of any television program," Whitehead said from Washington, D.C. "Any exploitation of people's poverty and misfortune is just outrageous."

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