The large and strange state of Texas is the setting this week for two new limited series, set at the opposite ends of the native culture: "Popularity Contest" (premiering tonight on CMT -- MTV's country cousin -- before taking up its regular slot on Friday), and "Sheer Dallas," which debuts Friday on TLC. Both shows are unscripted, which is not to say that they're documentaries -- which is not to say they don't contain passages of real human behavior. They are artificial, though perhaps not inaccurate, and, for what they are, well done and watchable and sensitive to nuance.
"Sheer Dallas" gets its punning title from the fact that its characters -- not characters in the sense of having been invented, of course, though they have been necessarily semi-fictionalized by editing -- are employees or clients of a hair salon called Pompeo. (If we are to believe the narration, by Larry Hagman, who was J.R. in another television "Dallas," Dallas has the most salons per capita of any city in the United States.) The intersection of their stories gives the series something of the flavor of a large-cast Robert Altman picture or a Christopher Guest mockumentary, to rather overstate the case. It also gives it an air of suspicious convenience, of events having been selected or suggested if not entirely staged for the benefit of the camera. The show is full of cutaways and inserts and comical or convenient angles outside the repertoire of classically disinterested documentary, and one senses often the gentle push of a producer's guiding hand. Which is just business as usual in the reality game, after all -- the mere truth is unreliable as entertainment. The people, figures show, are happy to compromise.
In any case, such artifice is not inappropriate to a show so devoted to surface. Everyone in "Sheer Dallas" is making themselves over, or being made over or performing the makeover. There are Lance (identified as an "overweight hairdresser") and Billy (a "straight hairdresser"), who have a bet whether Lance can lose 20 pounds in 30 days. ("I'm just magnated to pizza," says Lance, inventing a useful new word.) There is Brooke, who is entered in the Miss Dallas County beauty pageant, and Steve, one of its judges; he has a pair of Scotties named, with local pride, Jack and Ruby, and a wardrobe that would have made Liberace weep. There is Dr. Barnett, a cosmetic surgeon in snakeskin boots, filling Steve with Botox, "the crack of modern plastic surgery." And there is Carolyn, a bejeweled "real estate legend" who bombs around in an especially long and ugly automobile and is a testament to the fact that age cannot be held back, no matter how hard you try. They are all easy to watch and not hard to like.
It's about 420 miles from Dallas to Vega, a farming community of 936 in the wind-swept vastness of the Texas panhandle. It's the sort of town in which the people of "Sheer Dallas" would not be caught dead, unless it were as competitors in "Popularity Contest."
In three words, it's "Survivor: West Texas." The show drops 10 contestants from "a bunch of different big cities" into an unfamiliar clime, where their days will be punctuated, in the usual way, with various "challenges" set them by host Jonathan Torrens. They come bearing cleavage and hoop earrings and hundred-dollar haircuts, trailing television cameras and promising a change of pace. Says one wise old resident, "Vega's going to get a big dose of multiculture and diversity, which we haven't had -- people in Vega lead a sheltered life."
Not so sheltered that they aren't up on the phrase "That's what I'm talking about," however. And there are, the show reminds us, all sorts of sheltered lives. Pro cheerleader Ali, who is from Seattle, does not know what a buffalo is: "I mean, living in a city, when are you going to see a buffalo? Never!"
Every episode will, you may have guessed, see the weakest member culled from the herd, although here it's not the contestants who do the voting out, but their citizen-hosts. (Ergo: "popularity contest.") The cheese who stands alone must return in shame to the land of low-fat decaf lattes and caramel apple martinis, but not before a group hug with people she or he barely knows.
From the look of episode one, what one needs to survive in Vega are good manners, a little bit of humility and a willingness to pitch in -- a nice switch from what it usually takes to win at these things. And it probably won't hurt to be conservative and churchgoing. "I'm a Republican!" contestant Rory happily responds when told she's in "Bush country," while contestant Angela is "trying to capture a certain type of people, if you will, um, 'cause I'm a Christian woman so I just use God to kind of put me in a certain position." Whatever works!