Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Summer Reality TV Roundup, Part 2

Back in June, The A.V. Club took a look at some of the remaindered reality shows that TV networks dumped into the off-season. Two of those dumpees, Hell's Kitchen and Dancing With The Stars, turned out to be good television and surprise hits. How well has the second half of summer's reality-TV slough-off fared? The A.V. Club returned to the tube—and ventured into the deadly realm of basic cable—to continue the study.

Situation: Comedy

(Bravo, Fridays at 7 p.m. ET)

Premise: It's Project Greenlight for the boob tube, as aspiring comedy writers pitch sitcom ideas to a team of NBC-affiliated producers. The top two scripts go into production for a 15-minute test pilot, with the better of the two getting a shot at becoming a series. (Shot not guaranteed.)

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Humiliation factor: Low to moderate. All the producers make an earnest effort to be nice, because this is show business, where power brokers pat people on the back with one hand and usher them out the door with the other. It's mainly up to the rube contestants to make asses of themselves by overestimating how much their hosts love them.

Insight into the human condition: Remember the old warning about too many cooks? Like Project Greenlight, Situation: Comedy shows how the Hollywood development process leeches away the originality that the industry pretends to admire, leaving behind the formulas and fashionable faces that the industry actually prefers.

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Summary: Speaking of formulas, Situation: Comedy follows the standard reality-show formula of restating the premise every few minutes, stretching 20 minutes worth of action to fill an hour. But it's still fascinating to watch the two finalist writing teams—one offering a Rushmore-esque piece of schoolboy whimsy called Stephen's Life, and the other fronting an old-school joke-a-minute family farce called The Sperm Donor—deal with their shifting fortunes and lack of real power. One minute they're treated as promising new talents, and the next they're just contest winners, lucky to have a studio day pass.

So You Think You Can Dance

(Fox, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET)

Illustration for article titled Summer Reality TV Roundup, Part 2
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Premise: Would-be Broadway stars show off their skills at pirouetting, high-kicking, sashaying, krumping, breaking, popping, and/or locking to producer Nigel Lythgoe and his team of trash-talking choreographers. Once the field is narrowed to 16 competitors, the American public's legendary dance-evaluation skills take over to determine the winner.

Humiliation factor: Diffuse early on, but when the choreographers spot a malingerer or an extra left foot, they go for the jugular. The show all but accuses two quarter-finalists of faking injuries to hide their incompetence, and king-sized contestant Allan is unlikely to escape the adjective "elephantine," even though he's made it past the first rounds.

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Insight into the human condition: Talent is not enough. Many of the street dancers who delivered jaw-dropping moves in auditions look like lost lambs when asked to dance with a partner or learn choreography. Professional training and experience don't hurt either. Blake, a recent dance-magazine cover boy, makes starry-eyed fans out of the teachers who are supposed to be judging him.

Summary: So You Think You Can Dance isn't as easy on the eyes or ears as its inspiration, American Idol, because good dancing is more diverse and difficult to recognize than good singing. But the contestants and authority figures alike have a refreshingly candid bitchiness, and the final rounds are sure to feature some appalling judgments by the text-messaging masses.

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The Takedown

(Court TV, Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET)

Premise: Veteran con man R. Paul Wilson—best known as that guy who explains how to cheat casinos on nearly every Vegas-themed travel show—assembles his own "Ocean's 11" and tries to steal stuff under the watchful eyes of security guards and TV cameras.

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Humiliation factor: None. Wilson's team plays it cautious and tends to bail on schemes before the heat comes down. At the same time, the show always depicts Wilson's opponents as skilled, relentless, and hard to outwit.

Insight into the human condition: Nobody trusts anybody. Whether Wilson's team is trying to count cards at blackjack or rip off thousands of dollars worth of equipment from an electronics store, they're under suspicion from the moment they walk through the door. So far, the only time Wilson and company seemed to be completely in the clear was during what should've been their toughest job: stealing a painting from an art gallery during a reception in honor of the painter.

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Summary: The Takedown is the kind of brisk, to-the-point half-hour show that gives reality TV a good name. Though it fudges some on how Court TV's cameras get into all the places where Wilson operates, there's no indication that these cons aren't being played fair, and the tension level gets pretty high when the team tries to switch out a loaded die at craps or bust out a roulette table without being found out. Plus, what could be more fun than hearing Wilson say "We've got to take it down!" three or four times an episode?

The Law Firm

(NBC, Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET)

Premise: Young lawyers vie to impress legal analyst Roy Black by arguing civil cases in court and arbitration. Each week, Black pink-slips a couple of the power-suited hopefuls with an Apprentice-reject catchphrase: "The verdict is in… and you are out."

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Humiliation factor: On the rarefied professional humiliation scale, it's off the charts. Watching brash, bar-certified attorneys get dressed down by a judge, sweat through an unprepared witness' meltdown, or stammer out opening statements is as painful as any dating show.

Insight into the human condition: When life assigns you to the prosecution table in a frivolous lawsuit, make lemonade. Some of these briefs are real dogs, like the one where a redneck sues his friend over a clearly farcical "Wanted" poster that portrayed him as a terrorist. But there's no such thing as a slam-dunk when the egotistical counsel for the defense starts to grandstand and forgets to cooperate.

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Summary: NBC has cancelled this David E. Kelly production after only two episodes, which is a real shame. Although Black is no Donald Trump—he delivers his critiques with chopping hand gestures worthy of a Yasser Arafat impersonator—the "cooperate or compete" reality-show conundrum attains brilliant clarity in The Law Firm. If NBC dumps the later episodes somewhere, they'll be worth watching just to see if that hotheaded blowhard Olivier gets his comeuppance.

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Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations

(Travel Channel, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET)

Premise: Essentially an expanded version of Anthony Bourdain's defunct Food Network show A Cook's Tour, the hourlong No Reservations follows the outlaw chef around the world, as he digs into the local history and eats extreme cuisine.

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Humiliation factor: Mild. Bourdain is respectful of his foreign hosts, and they of him, but he's also unafraid to show himself feeling poorly after a night of drinking absinthe or an afternoon of eating fermented shark.

Insight into the human condition: Fine dining has its place, but if you want to get the flavor of a region, you have to eat what the peasants eat. Bourdain lustily consumes head cheese, sheep's testicles, and blood sausage, and he seems especially fond of hearty stews and sandwiches, washed down with whatever the natives drink when they want to get crunked.

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Summary: As with A Cook's Tour, Bourdain tries too hard to make himself look like a badass, and his attempts to evoke the tough-guy movies and punk music he likes sometimes comes out contrived. But his soliloquies can be sardonically funny, and the extra half-hour of eating and touring matters significantly. With more time to spend on each location, Bourdain is able to get deeper into the culture surrounding the meals.

Master Blasters

(SciFi Channel, Wednesdays at 11 p.m. ET)

Premise: American Chopper meets Iron Chef. A father-son rocketry team takes on allegedly eminent rivals in weekly challenges to design projectiles and perform bizarre stunts, like recreating the tornado-powered flight of Dorothy's house, or scoring a field goal with a compact car.

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Humiliation factor: Negligible, at least for major geeks like these boys. Even if a homemade Atlas fails to achieve liftoff, a big ol' rocket is still going to explode and crash. And although embarrassing penalties are imposed on losing teams, everybody's too happy to be on TV to be ashamed.

Insight into the human condition: Who cares about winning, as long as you do something that looks awesome? The launch segments are Master Blasters' money shots, with both teams yelling in ecstasy over the machines' wild rides, regardless of whether they do what they're supposed to do. As much as the show tries to play up its manufactured rivalries and supposedly surprise twists, the 40 minutes of intro, building, and endless recaps are like the plot of a porno: entertaining only in its irrelevance.

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Summary: SciFi boldly goes beyond the super-CGI of Battlestar Galactica and the sub-National Geographic docu-reality of Ghost Hunters into something more suited for the Discovery Channel. And it's so endearingly rattletrap, it's hard not to love. Dan and Terry Stroud—who probably dubbed themselves "Master Blasters" after the glue fumes got too thick one day in the workshop—don't seem to buy the "rocketry gangland" mythos the producers trowel on, which makes the whole affair a perfect (though repetitive) piece of multi-layered postmodern kitsch.

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