Monday, December 29, 2008

On The Third Day Of Christmas

On the third day of Christmas my true love – Television – gave to me... three Reality TV Show stars.

Now contrary to what my friend Toby contends, I don't watch all that much reality TV. I watch what I call "The Big Three" from CBS – Big Brother, Survivor, and The Amazing Race and sample a few others in the summer. I really don't consider Dancing With The Stars to be a reality show, and I don't watch the Project Runway class of look-alike shows – Project Runway, America's Next Top Model, Top Chef, and the one about hairstylists. Mostly those shows aren't available to me. I've never watched the "dating" shows like The Bachelor, and most of the talent shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance leave me totally out of it. That goes for their Canadian versions as well, although I feel a considerable irritation over the fact that CTV has pulled Canadian Idol from their 2009 line-up and blame the economic environment. It's one of the network's highest rated show and either they think that they've found all of the singing talent in Canada after three seasons or that it costs too much to rent the venues. (Maybe if they didn't spend $3 million on the rights to the old Hockey Night In Canada theme. No hockey games to go with it, just the theme music.) I even became disenchanted with the only "talent" type show that I watched – NBC's America's Got Talent – as a result of the bloated audition phase and the atrophied performance phase.

What all of that was about was to explain why my list of Reality TV Show Stars is restricted to just three. I mean it could have been four if I'd decided to include Gene Simmons from Celebrity Apprentice but let's face it, Gene Simmons is Gene Simmons; larger than life and maybe even (in his way) larger than Trump. What I'm interested in in this post is the non-celebrities who have, through the medium of the Reality TV Shows that I watch have inserted themselves into my memory for a little while. I have to say that the number who actually did that was severely restricted. While Jerry and to a lesser extent Renny on the summer Big Brother created an impression but in the case of Jerry it was an increasingly negative one and in the case of Renny it often focused on that voice. There were good people in Amazing Race 13 but none who stood out in the way that Kynt & Vyxsin did in the twelfth edition of The Race. So here's what I've got, two players from the most recently completed cycle of Survivor and one from an otherwise unremarkable show called Greatest American Dog. These are presented in alphabetical order if for no other reason than it removes any taint of favouritism from the mix.

Bill McFarlin & Star – Greatest American Dog: I'm a dog guy – have been since the cat I thought was mine ran away when I was four. Watching Greatest American Dog generally reaffirmed for me the claim by the late Barbara Woodhouse that there were no bad dogs just bad owners. The people on the show all loved their dogs, but some were incredibly – even stupidly – indulgent of them. Some couldn't control their dogs while others were over-controlling to the point where their dogs were becoming stressed and the owners didn't even know it. And then there were the egos – mostly the owners – that got in the way. Bill, from Flint Texas, seemed to have a special bond with his Brittany Spaniel Star. Unlike some of the contestants he didn't anthropomorphise the dog, and unlike others he wasn't overly controlling. Star was smart and responsive, while Bill was genuinely concerned with the dog's welfare. At one point Star was injured – apparently by a feral cat – and Bill was heartbroken over the possible injury to his dog, not about possibly leaving the contest. This was in contrast with some other contestants. The other thing about Bill is that he was very friendly and willing to help other contestants on the show in working with their dogs if they wanted the help. Again this was in stark contrast with some of the contestants. One in particular – a professional trainer – tended to be condescending to the other owners. It is something of a testament to Bill and Star that when they were eliminated from the show, I eliminated the show from my weekly viewing.

Bob Crowley – Survivor: Gabon: One of those cases where the "good guy" and someone who actually deserves it wins a reality-competition show. Bob Crowley, a high school physics teacher, from Maine wasn't the most likely person to win the show. In fact he was arguably the most unlikely. He was the oldest man on the show and in a very real way one of the least effective in the physical challenges. But as he said at one point (it was inserted into promos for the show featuring him) he was "wicked smaht." His initial contributions to the tribes that he was on were in terms of woodcraft and outdoorsmanship. His teams had plenty of food cooked well (he improvised a griddle by splitting open and flattening a large tin can) and comforts (at one point he apparently built a bench at one of the camps). This led at least one of his competition to dismiss him as "not really playing the game." It was a severe underestimation. Even as his alliance was falling apart he was laying the groundwork towards forging new temporary relationships. And he was not above being devious. Not once but twice he created fake immunity idols of such good quality that they were able to persuade others of their legitimacy. But perhaps his greatest triumph in the game was an unprecedented string of personal challenge victories – both immunity and reward – with which he was able to retain his position in the game even as he was becoming the obvious threat to beat. In the end he was able to persuade the jury members that he, unlike second place finisher Susie (a woman who made flying under the radar a new art form), had lived up to the show's motto "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast." (One interesting sidelight about Bob: one of his students, Julie Berry, was a competitor on Survivor: Vanuatu - she finished fifth.)

Jessica "Sugar" Kiper – Survivor: Gabon: If ever proof were needed that reality shows have writers – at least to pick out and develop the storylines from the footage shot on location – it is Sugar. To viewers Sugar was the second most likable member of the cast (behind Bob) as shown by the fan poll at the end of the series. And yet she was the only one of the final three not to get a vote for the jury. Susie, who was probably the least visible of the cast members who made it to the merge – at least in terms of screen-time – received only one less vote than Bob. Clearly – and it was stated during the reunion show – there were things about Sugar and her behaviour that irritated people. I suppose that 39 days of Sugar is different than fifteen edited hours of her. What is abundantly clear is that however much she may have irritated them, Sugar also allowed herself to be underestimated by the other competitors (with the possible exception of Bob – I think he saw right through her). They seem to have based their impression of her on the body, the voice and the hair and ignored the fact that she had a brain. It was absolutely clear when we saw Corinne and Randy talking about Bob almost certainly finding the Hidden Immunity Idol at Exile Island despite the fact that Sugar had been there five times while Bob had only been there twice. Clearly Sugar was too stupid to find the Idol (she found it the first time she went). Setting that aside, Sugar was either responsible for or at the very least involved with some of the biggest moves in the game including the elimination of Ace – supposedly the "brain" behind Sugar – and the final elimination of Kenny by giving her Immunity Idol to Matty. In fact it was Sugar who gave Bob the million dollar win by voting for her long-time ally Matty ensuring the tie, and telling Bob of her intentions beforehand which allowed him to practice his fire making skills. Sugar's greatest enemy in the game was Corinne, and I suspect it may have been her statements at the jury session that influenced the portrayal of Sugar. First Corinne said that Sugar would have her vote if only she would agree to use the money to have her vocal cords severed. It went downhill from there. In a speech later in her questioning of the surviving players, Corinne showed off what I can only call her "Anne Coulter" side: "You are an unemployed, uneducated leech on society. And the only thing I would vote to give you is a handful of anti-depressants so that no one else has to be subjected to your constant crying anymore. And maybe if you get some, then it would seem a little more sincere when you are crying about your dead father." And there you have summed up the "heroine/villainess" (because Randy and later Kenny had admirably placed themselves as the male villain of the piece in counter point to Bob's hero) dynamic that the people who put the hours of tape for this season together in a viewable package used to shape our perceptions of this season.

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