Ryan Lochte is known for his vapidity almost as much as he’s known for his prowess in the pool. Earlier this week, a Lochte interview with Good Day Philadelphia anchors Mike Jerrick and Shenielle Jones went viral, after Jones and Jerrick couldn’t control their laughter when the interview was over. During the short interrogation, Lochte drawls his way through, barely answering the softballs lobbed at him by the anchors. “How are they going to put together 13 weeks of programming?" Jerrick asks about What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, the newest half hour courtesy of E! Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. The verdict: The show may be called What Would Ryan Lochte Do? but the answer to that question isn’t very interesting. A better query came from Boston Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert, who tweeted Sunday morning: “What's it like to have stupid be your brand? #RyanLochte”
Stupid in the case of Ryan Lochte isn’t an insult, mainly because it doesn’t seem to bother him all that much. And why should it? He’s an 11-time Olympic medalist with endorsement deals and a revolving door of women to keep him busy between meets. He’s got shoes that say his name on the soles for god’s sakes, and now he’s got his own television show. Lochte revels in his own shallowness, and any contrary opinion has little effect on him.
Michael Phelps couldn’t do what Lochte does. During the 2012 Olympics, Phelps was presented as the hardcore competitor, who lived and died in the pool and had little else to say. Lochte, on the other hand, had a personality that the media could glom onto, even if it was to epically hate on him for his egged-on douchebaggery. At least it was a personality that went beyond the naked pursuit of victory. Winning is great and all, but a soundbite is better. Phelps was the competitor, and Lochte was the celebrity. So, what’s next after wearing a red, white and blue grill on the medal stand? Clearly, reality television.
Loche was courted by reality TV soon after the Olympics were over. Rumors swirled that he would be the next Bachelor or he would compete on Dancing With The Stars. But Ryan the Celebrity flourished within the constantly evolving news structure of Olympic coverage. He was exciting to follow for a short time, hiding the fact that there wasn’t all that much of him behind a self-satisfied comment and a chiseled-from-marble set of abs. A ridiculous quote here, a catchphrase (Jeah!) there, but there was never really any sustained narrative, unlike, say Gabby Douglas, to hang a series on.
WWRLD? centers on the swimmer’s life in Gainesville, Florida. He trains, he goes out with his Lochterage (dedicated to turning it up at all times), he hits on women, and he hangs out with his family. In one camp of reality television, people are filmed because of something they’re doing, like a profession or a competition. In the other camp, people are filmed because of who they are. The most successful cases of the latter are carefully constructed by the subjects to hide the fact that they are not doing much of anything at all. The Kardashians, for instance, may not do anything concrete, per se, but they make a profession out of projecting their brand. There’s an iota of thought and substance behind the characters presented as reality. WWRLD? has little interest in Ryan the Swimmer, so it rests on the shoulders of Ryan the Celebrity, and that is severely lacking. Sure, it's fun to watch him struggle with the meanings to his own empty catchphrases. “I’ve never been asked that question: What is the Lochte Edge?” Lochte wonders during a talking heads session. “I honestly have no idea.” Dude. Seriously. How could you not know the definition of something you made up? But it would be more fun if Lochte had the personality to actually come up with an answer. I wonder if Lochte's persona would be better suited for the structured environment of a show like The Bachelor. At least he would have something to do in between revelations that he can't remember how many medals he won in London.
There are a few winks and nods to Lochte’s lack of insight. (For the record, I did consider that the empty vessel that is Lochte was in fact some kind of genius meta-construction on the nature of celebrity, but then Lochte said “Jeah” for the 20th time, and I quickly snapped out of it.) Lochte briefly touches upon his status as ultimate American Douchebag. As he wonders about the definition of douchebag (which he purports not to know), scenes flash by of Lochte showing off a watch he values at the cost of a house. But there’s also a competing storyline that I find a much more interesting, pointing to the predicted audience of WWRLD: Ryan Lochte as the lovelorn romantic.
Any reality show needs a cast of characters. In this case, it’s Lochte’s family. His sisters want Lochte to find a mate, and even he says he’s ready to settle down. “I won’t give up on love,” Lochte says after a date with a woman he met the night before ends when she reveals she’s moving to L.A. in a month. “I’ll keep looking.” Granted he previously remembers his thwarted wife as having “blonde hair, great… upper body,” but the prevailing theme of the first episode is that he wants a girlfriend, even foreshadowing the appearance of his one true love, the British Jamie. The producers may not have been able to draw a personality fit for sustained viewing out of Lochte, so they instead attempt to appeal to the base of women who are the clear targets of WWRLD? If this demographic has to watch Lochte participate in a series of one night stands, he at least might as well sell desired monogamy as well. And, if that storyline doesn't work, there are copious shots of Lochte’s torso. If there were ever a case to be made for the Female Gaze on television, WWRLD? should serve as the main point of evidence. Any opportunity to catch Lochte in a state of undress is capitalized on. His abs might as well get their own intercut interview segment, like those Tim and Eric-directed Terry Crews Old Spice commercials. Can Lochte sell stupid? Definitely not. But the producers know how to sell Lochte, and that's really all that matters.