Friday, July 11, 2008

Big Brother Idol...For Dogs

I'm a dog guy – I love them, though I confess that I prefer the medium sized guys. Needless to say, as a dog guy I was looking forward to seeing Greatest American Dog, the latest reality competition series that CBS is putting forward this summer. I wasn't necessarily looking forward with high hopes. That way I knew I wouldn't be disappointed. And guess what, I wasn't disappointed, which is good. I wasn't surprised by the quality of it either, which is bad because I wanted to be surprised. There was little to justify high hopes and a considerable amount that was cringe worthy, but at least the dogs were mostly bearable.

If you want to sum up Greatest American Dog in terms of other shows it could be best described as Big Brother meets American Idol with a touch of Survivor on the side. The basic concept is that twelve dogs and their humans are moved in to "Canine Academy." The location looks to be a big mansion in California decorated with dog related kitsch – it would be a stretch to describe anything associated with the place "art." The dogs and humans are a diverse lot. There are several professional dog trainers, and some of the dogs have either worked professionally or appeared on TV shows or commercials as novelty acts. Others are just people who love their dogs and have taught them some tricks and think they're talented. On the whole the dogs seem relatively young – the oldest is eleven years old and the average age is probably closer to three or four. With one exception the dogs are all purebreds. There is however no real explanation or understanding of how and why these particular dogs were picked and why they deserve to be describes as "The Greates American Dog" beyond the owner applying and sending in a good audition tape – in other words, exactly like every other reality-competition show.

The legendary Barbara Woodhouse felt that there were no bad dogs just bad owners. I'm not sure if you'd call and of the participants on this show truly bad owners. There are however some people whose affectations with their dogs make you want to shake your head...or their heads. There's the guy who, when his Parson Russell Terrier reached the age of 13 in dog years, threw the dog a "bark-mitzvah" (a doggie bar mitzvah). At least the man's friends seemed to enjoy themselves; no word on the dog's friends. There's the woman who insists that her dog wears an outfit every day because otherwise she'd be naked. Yeah, she actually said that. Finally there was the woman whose dog works in Broadway plays who takes the dog where it needs to go in New York riding in a child's stroller. At Canine Academy the stroller was replaced by a wagon.

The similarity to Big Brother and Survivor really picks up when it comes to the "Bone Competition." Although the prize is similar to Big Brother's "Head of Household" – a private room for dog and owner complete with special treats for the dog, the key to which is, no kidding, a golden bone – it is more like a Survivor reward in that there's no power associated with one little exception that I'll get to in a moment. The first competition was a game of musical chairs. Well musical boxes really. Dogs and owners had to circle a group of boxes, not unlike dog show stands, and when the music stopped the dogs had to get up on the stands and sit down. As in musical chairs there was one, and sometimes two, stands fewer than the number of dogs. If a dog was on the stand and didn't sit and another dog jumped on it and did sit, the first dog had to either find another box or was out.

The winner of the competition was won by professional dog entertainer (he entertains with dogs, not for dogs in case you were wondering) J.D. and his nine year old English Pointer, Border Collie cross Galaxy. The power that J.D. earned for winning the competition was the ability to send one of the other dog and owner combinations to "The Dog House." Think "Exile Island" on Survivor; it's a place where the chosen team is sequestered away from the others in an uncomfortable living situation. J.D. picked David & Elvis, a New York Doctor and his Parson Russell Terrier (he was the guy who gave his dog a Bark Mitzvah) entirely – so he said – because David showed up wearing a suit jacket. The "Dog House" is what I guess you might call an out building. It's a single room but big enough to stand up and move around in with thin mattresses from David and Elvis. There was a rattan screen and shutters for privacy. As David joked it wasn't what they were used to but it would probably rent for about $2,000 a month in New York. Some of the other competitors took pity on David and moved in a mattress for him and some other things.

The big event of the episode was the Elimination Challenge. Dogs and owners had to split into groups of four and develop a performance that would show off the dog's talents and abilities, and almost as important the owner's ability to control their dogs and to get them to act on command. The shows would be judged by a trio of dog experts: Animal Fair editor in chief Wendy Diamond, Dogs In Review editor Allan Reznik, and dog trainer Victoria Stillwell. They used the performances to see how well the dogs were trained and would select three dogs for elimination based on a variety of indicators, including whether the owner could get the dog to act on command, whether the dog seemed stressed, whether the owner had to manipulate the dog to get it to act (a very big no-no), whether the dog needed a lot of treats to get it to do what was needed, and whether the owner compensated for the dog's lack of ability by performing themselves in a way that would distract from the dog's lack of ability. The dogs chosen as candidates for elimination were Brandy & Beacon (a white schnauzer), Beth Joy & Bella Starlet (an 11 year-old mutt – this is the dog that gets hauled around in strollers and wagons), and Michael & Ezzie (a brown Boston Terrier – one of my favourite breeds although I prefer the black and white colouring). It seemed obvious that Brandy & Beacon should be eliminated. She found it difficult to get her dog to perform on command and at one point forced Beacon to sit by pushing down on the dog's hindquarters. However the partnership that was eventually eliminated were Michael & Ezzie. Ezzie seemed to be a bit of a problem child outside of the performance segment. The judges also noted that Ezzie was licking her lips a lot which indicated to them that she was feeling stressed. Worst of all they thought that Michael seemed to try to take center stage in terms of performing possibly to draw attention away from his dog's lack of discipline. But yeah, I did think that Michael & Ezzie (but mostly Ezzie) were robbed.

As I mentioned, I went into this with fairly low expectations and I will state that I wasn't overly impressed with the result. It seems like they've cobbled together unrelated concepts and put dogs into the mix. The result isn't a train wreck the way a lot of summer reality shows without dogs are and it is enjoyable enough. You do get a real sense that these people are proud of their dogs even though in some cases they take it to extremes – Brandy is a particularly memorable example of this. And of course, while viewers are "hooked" by the gimmick of the dogs, the real subjects are the different personalities of the owners. And the public seems to be responding, either because of the dearth of new shows in the time slot or because they're interested in the dogs. The show drew 9.46 million viewers and had a 2.2/7 rating in the (all important) 18-49 demographic. Moreover it built slightly in both areas between the first and second half hours. Still, I can't give it much more than a half-hearted recommendation. It's enjoyable enough to watch, and viewers can really become attached to the dogs to the point where you have to be the ultimate cynic (like my brother Greg – he finds it impossible to watch just about anything that isn't sports without making snide and even ridiculing comments, usually ending with the phrase "the collapse of western civilization") not to at least say something nice about the dogs. And yet I find it more than a little dismaying that they couldn't come up with something more original with this for a basis. Worst of all there is something about this show that is almost worthy of the description "cheesy." This one gets a very weak recommendation from me but only because it's the summer and there's not really that much to choose from.

No comments: