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TELEVISION | REVIEWS

There's no faking the clamor for 'reality'

May 31, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

With this summer's onslaught of "reality television" shows resembling the swarming Orcs in "The Lord of the Rings," it's tempting to lump them all into one malodorous catchall category.

Yet to be fair, staged reality actually comes in various shapes, including the twisted game show; the freak show/carnival sideshow/car crash variety, which ask nothing more than the viewer's curiosity; and the drama/soap opera or dating/relationship subgenres, which require the audience to place themselves, to a degree, in the participants' shoes.

Three disparate examples are on display beginning Sunday, with NBC's compelling "Law & Order"-inspired courtroom show "Crime & Punishment" returning for a second summer run; BBC America launching the charming "Faking It" Sunday as well; and the latest dating mutation, NBC's "For Love or Money," making its debut Monday with a bloated two-hour premiere.

What's most remarkable about the dating strain of the reality bug is that the women who tune in (and sorry, it is primarily women) can relate to situations that are so patently absurd -- identifying with "characters" in wildly fabricated situations and even strategizing about how they would behave under similar circumstances.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Air dates -- An index item on E1 of Saturday's Calendar referred to three examples of "reality television" and stated that the programs would be shown on Sunday. Only two of the shows, "Crime & Punishment" on NBC and "Faking It" on BBC America, were shown Sunday night. The third show, "For Love or Money," was shown Monday night on NBC.

Enter "For Love or Money," NBC's cynical attempt to either latch onto the gravy train led by Fox's "Joe Millionaire" and ABC's "The Bachelor" or at worst flood the airwaves with enough look-alikes to undermine the originals.

Since women are the primary audience, at the core of this show is what would seem to be a peculiar question -- how does money skew the way women approach relationships and what they'll do in order to get it?

"Will these women lie, backstab and break hearts for cold, hard cash?" host Jordan Murphy asks.

Well, we can only hope. Even ABC's last edition of "The Bachelor," with dreamy heir Andrew Firestone as the prize, played to this decidedly anti-feminist mentality -- the twist here being that only the women know the "winner" will choose between the man of her dreams and a $1-million payoff.

"For Love or Money" features the usual 15 beautiful women (OK, more like 11 or 12) vying for the affection of a characteristically tall, dark and handsome Dallas defense attorney with all the personality of a doorknob. If you're ever accused of a crime in Texas, please, don't let this guy represent you.

Informed of the possible cash prize, you can almost discern the dollar signs dancing in some of the pretty heads. "You're about to see the most disgusting side of people," one woman (do names really matter?) says portentously.

Actually, that would be earlier in the evening, on NBC's "Fear Factor."

Naturally, the action takes place in a Bel-Air mansion, causing you to wonder just how many vacant mansions are out there to be used for such series. At this point, when one contestant says "I'm here to meet my future husband," it's also hard to escape thinking an invitation to pose for Playboy or Maxim is the more likely outcome.

From a team of producers that includes Bruce Nash (whose recent credits include Fox's equally forgettable "Mr. Personality"), "For Love or Money" is foremost a rollicking bore, bringing new meaning to the idea of padding or milking would-be drama where little exists -- as in the excruciatingly drawn-out process of watching the bachelor as he meets the bevy of beauties and, later, dismisses a third of them.

A better bet is "Crime & Punishment," yet another series under the aegis of "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf, which follows real criminal trials from the perspective of San Diego deputy district attorneys. Sunday's episode involves a husband accused of attempting to kill his estranged wife and murdering her brother.

Granted, there are quibbles with the format, not the least being that the storytelling is decidedly one-sided; you see prosecutor Stacy Running fretting and working out during breaks but not her counterpart. That said, the show is tightly edited and pulls you along in much the way its scripted predecessor does, and it's hard not to be engaged watching a victim's crying mother view his killer's trial.

Another agreeable hour can be found in BBC America's "Faking It," which asks a person to try mastering an occupation or skill well enough to fool experts -- the maiden example being a ballet dancer subjected to a crash course in professional wrestling.

The show is amusing and understated, cutting back and forth between the dancer spinning gracefully and his increasingly bruised body as he learns to bounce off the ropes and take falls; still, the format is rather hit-or-miss ("burger flipper to head chef" doesn't pack quite the same wallop) depending on who's in the spotlight.

On the plus side, at least the fakery here isn't in pursuit of a seven-figure prize, just as this British import and "Crime & Punishment" manage to build suspense without the urgent musical score that seems to accompany every beat of "For Love or Money."

So will love conquer commerce? The truth is, if viewers are intrigued enough to watch yet another dating-show clone, then commerce will have won already.

*

Summer reality shows

What: "For Love or Money"

Where: NBC

When: Premieres Monday night at 9

Host: Jordan Murphy

Production credits: Executive produced by Bruce Nash, J.D. Roth, Todd Nelson and John Foy

Rating: The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

What: "Crime & Punishment"

Where: NBC

When: Sunday nights at 10

Production Credits: Created and executive produced by Dick Wolf, Bill Guttentag and David Kanter; also executive produced by Peter Jankowski

Rating: The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14).

What: "Faking It"

Where: BBC America

When: Premieres Sunday night at 5 and 8

Production credits: Executive produced by Stephen Lambert

Rating: The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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