What Would Ryan Lochte Do? (Screenshot: E!)

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

There’s something inherently compelling about world-class athletes. We’re fascinated, on a superficial level, by their perfect young bodies, sculpted and engineered to compete in the highest echelons of sports. These are bodies created through sacrifice and self-discipline, by foregoing personal lives for the pursuit of greatness.


But there are also the human-interest stories behind these impossibly perfect-looking athletes, the tear-jerking accounts of dying grandmas and single mothers risking it all for a child’s dream, and all the other sweat-soaked melodramas that fill up airtime between the games themselves. The Olympics are about sports, but they’re also about stories, and television is shameless in how it chooses to tell those stories.

Yet our fascination with Olympians tends to be on the fleeting and fickle side. One moment we’re strangely obsessed with the U.S women’s beach volleyball team, the next we’ve forgotten the sport’s entire existence. For every Michael Phelps who will undoubtedly remain famous for decades, there are hundreds of Olympians who thrilled the world, then were quickly forgotten. The world is fascinated by these athletes’ bodies, but they’re less interested in what’s inside their heads.

That’s partially because many world-class athletes have more reason to develop their bodies than develop their minds. Their young lives are so focused on achieving a goal that many are doomed to be naive or, in some cases, developmentally stunted in other aspects of their day-to-day existence.

We fall in love with Olympic athletes during the games, but do we really want to know more about them? Is our fascination just a summer (or winter) crush or something more permanent and sustainable? In 2013, E! took a gamble that the public did want to know more about multiple-gold-medal-winning swimmer Ryan Lochte, or at least it wanted to spend more time ogling his perfect abs and model-handsome face. So E! green-lit the reality show What Would Ryan Lochte Do?


The show was a crushing commercial and creative failure, although if a reality show were to follow Lochte around today as he deals with the simmering controversy of fleeing Brazil one step ahead of the law after possibly lying to the police about being robbed at gunpoint, it likely would be fascinating and a huge hit. What Would Ryan Lochte Do? establishes that its protagonist is as boring as he is beautiful, but this crazy international scandal has made him a whole lot more interesting, pretty much overnight.

At times What Would Ryan Lochte Do? seems less like a television show than a fiendishly effective delivery system for people yelling, “Jeah!” with an enthusiasm that Lochte clearly hoped, and thought, would sell millions of T-shirts with “Jeah!” spelled out in green fake rhinestones on the front. People yell “Jeah!” so often in What Would Ryan Lochte Do? that if you were to do a shot every time that inane catchphrase comes up, you’d die of alcohol poisoning halfway through the first season. Yet you would still, somehow, not be drinking as much as Lochte and his “Lochterage” does.

Yes, Lochterage, which the show helpfully defines as an “Inner Circle Dedicated To Turning It Up At All Times.” As the Lochterage label clumsily conveys, What Would Ryan Lochte Do? functions on one level as Entourage-style lifestyle porn: A preposterously good-looking intellectual lightweight whose life is one endless frat party with no hangover the next morning, and the worshipful bros on hand to keep Lochte from ever having to gaze into the abyss and face the meaninglessness of his existence.


What Would Ryan Lochte Do? (Photo: E!)

His family is also on hand, to ground him. But his sisters, younger brother, and mother never really come into focus as anything more than fuzzy abstractions useful only as foils to the obnoxious star. Lochte’s friends are similarly forgettable; their greatest strength is their ability to briefly take some of the focus off of the raging black hole of narcissism the series is named for. Lochte is astonishingly dumb and naive in a way the show unsuccessfully tries to make seem adorable, in a Jessica Simpson-on-Newlyweds way. One of the show’s limp running jokes involves zooming in on Lochte’s deer-in-the-headlights expression when he’s asked to do anything outside his comfort zone of swimming real fast, partying with his bros, and being handsome.


What Would Ryan Lochte Do? follows Lochte as he parties, drinks, gets awards, chases women, meets with his sponsors at Speedo, and eats tons of fast food when not training. In one of the many details that make Lochte so deliciously relatable and sympathetic, Lochte exercises so much and has such a great metabolism that he can eat all the garbage food he wants and still have a perfect body.

What Would Ryan Lochte Do? is an obnoxious valentine to the emotionally stunted party lifestyle of its titular sex bomb (the star is an executive producer), but it has to pretend to be about something more than a world-class bro bro-ing it out in the company of his best bros. So the show intermittently pretends that its subject is a true romantic in search for the perfect woman to settle down with. Yet it’s difficult, if not impossible, to buy into the show’s cynical attempt to pass Lochte off as a man eager to settle down when he’s clearly having a ball having casual sex with the many women who throw themselves at him. There’s nothing inherently wrong about being preposterously hot, dense, and superficial, but Lochte is too calculating in his dumbness for it be much fun.

In What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, the protagonist often comes across like a misanthropic parody of an oblivious, entitled millennial convinced the world owes him everything, and best not be leisurely in delivering on that promise. The show would seemingly be ideal for hate-watching. Perhaps E! green-lit the show because, as the Kardashians have illustrated, there’s an awful lot of money to be made in being hated. Even if audiences didn’t want to laugh with Lochte, maybe they’d laugh at him instead. The problem is that Lochte isn’t even an entertaining idiot; he’s just an idiot. His life is so impossibly perfect, a Maxim fantasy of wealth, power, and sex, that only people like George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Justin Timberlake could possibly relate to his travails as a stunningly handsome, world-famous millionaire playboy at the peak of his athletic and professional perfection.


As if to really rub the no-stakes awesomeness of its protagonist’s life in the audience’s face, the eight half-hours of substance-free fluff that constitute What Would Ryan Lochte Do?’s first and only season concludes with the overgrown frat boy at its center taking his entire Lochterage to spring break for even more binge-drinking, casual sex, and partying. But if Lochte’s life is essentially one long Olympian frat party, it’s a frat party audiences can only watch from a jealous, joyless distance, and never participate in. Lochte is so single-mindedly devoted to pursuing his own hedonistic fun that he ignores the audience. Lochte is arrogant enough to imagine that because he swims so fast, and looks so good in a hot pink Speedo that he can pass off what resembles an undiscriminating Florida fraternity’s collection of unedited home movies as an actual television show.

The complete failure of What Would Ryan Lochte Do? suggests that we only think we want to know about the everyday lives of our favorite Olympics athletes, when in reality, they’d either bore us or fill us with jealousy. What Would Ryan Lochte Do? does both. It confirms that the beefcake “charm” of Ryan Lochte is best processed through still imagery and watching him swim, both of which, crucially, do not call for Lochte to open his pretty mouth and attempt to string together words in a coherent fashion, something he fails at regularly. Talking is Lochte’s fatal weakness, and it turns out that if you have your own reality show, you have to do a lot of talking. That’s where What Would Ryan Lochte Do? goes awry. Lochte’s catchphrase “Jeah!” is the show in a microcosm: He desperately, pathetically tried to make it happen, but the public just wasn’t having it, and for good reason.


Though clearly designed to promote Lochte’s synergistic ventures, What Would Ryan Lochte Do? ended up irrevocably harming the athlete’s career by confirming the public’s conception of him as a ditsy, over-sexed, hard-partying bimbo who is a phenomenal physical specimen with the intelligence, depth, and attention span of a golden retriever puppy. Then again, I suspect that Lochte would much prefer his old image as a beautiful half-wit coasting breezily through the lush life to the new reputation he is rapidly developing as a beautiful half-wit so stupid and naive that his partying and bad judgment have the potential to cause a bona fide international incident. It turns out there are actually huge downsides to letting people get away with everything as long as they’re rich, powerful, attractive, and successful enough. One of those dangers is that they’re so used to getting away with everything short of murder, they won’t realize that they’re in serious trouble until it’s too late.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure