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TELEVISION REVIEW

The 'Beauty' is how sweet it often seems

June 01, 2005|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

Good summer TV is like good summer romance -- fun and a bit of a departure, but most of all nice, so there are no regrets when it's through.

This is why "Beauty and the Geek," the reality show created by "Sopranos" writer Nick Santora and produced by the "Punk'd" team of Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg, has buzz going as it begins tonight on the WB.

The concept is sexy -- seven smart, nerdy guys thrust into a mansion with seven lovely, not-so-smart women to compete in boy-girl teams for $250,000.

The contests are easy to relate to (fifth-grade spelling for the women, salsa dancing for the men, for example).

And it makes a departure that is not just surprising, but almost uplifting, considering the sourness of the reality genre by now: Rather than making freaks out of ordinary humans, as most unscripted shows do, "Beauty and the Geek" gently teases out the humanity in people whose gifts and insecurities tend to set them apart from the masses.

The result is all the fun of an unscripted show and almost none of the usual humiliation. In fact, it wouldn't be going overboard to call it sincere.

Meet, for example, Krystal from Philadelphia, who introduces herself to the seven "geeks" by announcing, "I'm a dancer for the 76ers. You guys know the Sixers?" At which point there's a moment of silence while the men just gaze speechlessly.

Then there's Cheryl the cocktail waitress, who thinks Herbert Hoover presided over the Civil War and believes that "1942 is when Columbus sailed the ocean blue," but nonetheless is accurately described by Eric the computer programmer as "a really beautiful chick."

There's Bill, vice president of the "Dukes of Hazzard" fan club, and Joe, a short, sweet-tempered filmmaker who confides: "Yeah, I'm a virgin. No, I'm not saving myself for anybody."

"Beauty and the Geek" could have stopped there. But instead everyone keeps undercutting the premise. The "geeks" turn out to be fairly quick studies, and surprisingly graceful when it comes to the interactions that matter. The "beauties" turn out to be less stupid than they are insecure under intellectual pressure.

The rules turn out to favor not the biggest nerd-bimbo combo but the pair who best manage to drop their guards and transform each another. Aside from a few irresistible jabs ("Every guy had their bathing suit up to their belly buttons!" says Lauren the lingerie model after a foray into the hot tub), the contestants assiduously refrain from making fun of each other.

"Erika's not the smartest girl, but I kind of have low self-esteem when it comes to dating and she has low self-esteem when it comes to how smart she is. We could both do well to raise each other's self-esteem in those different areas," the earnest Joe suggests as he and his partner, a "life-size Barbie model," prepare for Round 1.

"I know how Joe feels now because standing up there in front of all those people was just, like, so intimidating," Erika reciprocates after muffing a trick question about "the capital of New England." "That's probably how Joe feels every day, just, like, going to the mall."

The show even seems to be sending up the by-now-mandatory reality show conventions -- the sweeping staircase, the roommate tension, the night-goggle footage of clandestine hookups, the Ryan Seacrest-y host banishing losers "ee-mediately" to the tune of dire music, the prize that sounds huge but is actually peanuts.

And whatever conventions get challenged, they don't include the big ones -- the beauties are all female, the brains are all men, "common sense" is generally treated as a better thing to have than depth and intellect, and everybody's white.

But, as one eliminated contestant puts it, "This show isn't what I was expecting."

That's its summer beauty, and its genius.

*

'Beauty and the Geek'

Where: WB

When: 8-9 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG-D (unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)

Executive producers Ashton Kutcher, Jason Goldberg, Nick Santora, J.D. Roth, Todd A. Nelson, John Foy

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