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'Bad Girls Club' takes reality to a low

When the friction gets physical, everybody - including the viewer - comes out a loser.

March 22, 2009|Jon Caramanica

First, the facts. Earlier this month on "Bad Girls Club," the cast took a vacation to Cancun, Mexico.

For this show, on which a group of malcontents is cooped up in a house and, occasionally, let out for an activity that seems designed to trigger misbehavior, this was, passport notwithstanding, par for the course. And frankly, so was what happened to the women outside a nightclub in which they'd been drinking, dancing and, in the case of some of them, participating in a bikini contest: There was a rumble.

After a season filled with so many fights that it has dulled receptors of what is right and wrong, it took an extra couple of seconds to process that this altercation was somehow unlike all the others. For most of the night, Amber M. -- not to be confused with her running buddy, Amber B. -- had been dancing apart from the group, one more night of social chilliness fostered by both sides. The rest of the group had been growing incensed by, no kidding, unfairness in the bikini contest and by its purveyors. When they all left the club, fueled by alcohol and indignation, they turned on Amber M., the house antagonist and outcast.

After sharp, meaningless words were exchanged, Whitney yanked Amber M.'s hair, hard, then was pulled off her. Tiffany got in the middle. Amber M. and Tiffany began scuffling, and then the whole of the house, save Amber B., jumped Amber M., punching her and pushing her to the ground, where she was kicked by Whitney and Ailea before producers and bystanders could break up the fight.

That's pretty much the formula for "Bad Girls Club," (Oxygen, 10 p.m. Tuesdays): "Girls Gone Wild" meets "Cops." And the participants in "Bad Girls Club" are, indeed, bad. Bad with a back story, to be sure. Sometimes even bad with a purpose. But not, it seems, bad with any intention of becoming good.

It wasn't long ago that listing reality-television villains was a straightforward, comprehensible task: Start with Puck from "The Real World's" third season and work on down. This show is a logical progression in that everyone's a villain, complicating what is typically a streamlined narrative.

But this is post-cynicism television. Previously in the reality arena we've been encouraged to peek in on the misadventures of others and pass judgment, knowing they too were agents in the process and were asking for the glare. But the women of "Bad Girls Club" just seem hopeless and manipulated. Lost before ever getting the affections of the camera, they accentuate the negative hoping to keep it. It's practically Hobbesian.

In an era of reform-and-redemption-centered reality television -- shows like VH1's "Tool Academy" and MTV's "The Girls of Hedsor Hall," in which ne'er-do-wells try to clean up their acts -- "Bad Girls Club," which is now in its third season and has its finale this week, is unique in that it pretends to some sort of do-goodery in its format but doesn't bother with it in execution. At best it strives for redemption by attrition. Last season, participants were required to maintain a job, but that onerous requirement has been lifted this year, leaving the Bad Girls free for foolishness.

And there has been plenty of that perpetrated by this season's cast, which by the time of the Cancun trip had cleaved into two factions: the Fab 5 (Tiffany, Whitney, Sarah, Ashley and Ailea), who perceive themselves as high-minded, and the Ambers (Amber M. and Amber B., both blond), shallow troublemakers who have become victims. In the house, they scream at one another and pull incessant pranks. It makes for troubling, not humorous, television.

So when Amber M. was attacked by her housemates, it felt inevitable and a little boring. Only after its severity was highlighted did it stand out from what's been happening all season. Because of the fight, Whitney and Ailea had to leave the show, punishment for kicking Amber M. while she was on the ground. And yet, it was difficult to feel anger toward them, because "Bad Girls Club" is redefining the meaning of villainy.

Instead of a typical forced-confinement show, Amber M. sees "Bad Girls Club" as an elimination show. Earlier this season, she got into a physical altercation with Kayla, who also subsequently left the show. (Ashley was her replacement.) That means Amber M. has been responsible for the removal of nearly half of her castmates, a stealth assassin who has masked her deviousness under a coat of naivete. Being willing to take a blow, it turns out, is far more effective and therefore dangerous than being willing to deal one out.

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