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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Most Popular'

Seven women stand before 100 women to be judged. Host Graham Norton provides levity.

July 18, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

Locally occupying the space left by the 2006 amalgamation of UPN and the WB as the CW, the WE is among the least of the networks (Lifetime, Oxygen, Style) branded as being "for women." (Menu choices on its website include "Singles" "Bridal" "Expecting" and "Moms.") Its programming consists of such knockoff cable-style reality originals as "My Fair Wedding" and "Raising Sextuplets" along with endless repeats of "Girlfriends" and "The Golden Girls," and strikes me as a good example of just how little a channel may offer and still stay in business.

And so the arrival there of the game show "Most Popular" -- it premieres Sunday but takes up its regular time slot on Thursday -- registers as relatively seismic, both as a striking out into a new genre and for the presence of its host, the wonderful Graham Norton (well known to viewers of BBC America).

It works this way: Seven women stand before an audience of 100 women, who judge them on a combination of first impressions and self-revelations. The show would more accurately be called "Least Unpopular," since in every round save the last the crowd votes not for the person it likes best but for the one it wants to send home.

That is how many reality shows work, of course, and "Most Popular" essentially compresses the business of a season of "Big Brother" or "Survivor" into the space of a single hour. Still, there is something fundamentally unsettling about the premise, this electronic casting of stones. There is an unconvincing "don't judge too quickly" theme floated throughout the show, but that is pretty much how the thing works. Indeed, the first-round elimination is based entirely on appearance.

As the show goes on, the contestants are asked a variety of questions to give some sense of who they are and what they believe. They respond to the criticisms of loved ones. ("Emotionally, Kelli can be an ice princess," says Kelli's sister; "Ebony makes people cry with her bluntness," says Ebony's best friend.) They display high school photos, appear dressed in their wedding gowns (in an episode in which all the women are newlyweds or about to be). They are asked to recount the worst thing they have ever done and the best.

Judging by the judgments, I'd say that if you are a woman wanting 100 other women to like you, it is best not to seem too full of yourself, too insincere or too indecisive, or to wear short shorts. One eliminated contestant -- variously described by those who voted her out as "too perfect," "too tall," "phony" and "rehearsed" -- is later revealed to be transgender. (Much hubbub follows.) Host Norton wonders whether there may be a connection.

Known here through BBC America retransmissions of "The Graham Norton Show," "Any Dream Will Do" and "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria" (along with a short-lived Comedy Central series, "The Graham Norton Effect"), the quick-witted Norton is more restrained here than on his home turf, where things tend to get a little loose and "adult." But he's what gives the show its balance and lift and humor, and he can get a lot of comic mileage out of lines like "Do go on" or "What a lovely story" or "Look at you in your jaunty cap."

There is a cash prize at the end.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Most Popular'

Where: WE

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: Not rated

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