overthinking the idiot box

July 11, 2005

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

And the Emmy Nominees SHOULD Be...

by Joel Bergen

Trying to get into the minds (or lack thereof) of Emmy voters is a far more maddening and futile pursuit than attempting to figure out their counterparts in the Motion Picture Academy, despite the fact that they are able (and quite willing) to nominate the same shows and performers year after year. It's especially difficult in the relatively new Reality categories, with only two years of voting patterns to rely on as evidence of their taste (or lack thereof).

The Competition category is easier to prognosticate than the Non-Competition one because there are so few "respected" contenders. For the record, I expect The Amazing Race, American Idol, The Apprentice and Survivor to repeat from last year with Last Comic Standing surrendering its spot to either the low-rated but high-class The Contender or the relatively high-rated but UPN-based America's Next Top Model (if I had to pick one, it'd be The Contender, since the Emmys don't realize that there are more than four networks).

Instead of trying to augur what they will anoint, I'll focus on what they should honor. Because I'm better than them.
I won't even try to call the Non-Competition nominees — there are far too many random entries from across the cable-verse, though I'd say Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Project Greenlight are probably locks to carry over from last year. While I wouldn't be surprised to see Wife Swap or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy make it, I would be equally unsurprised to see them snubbed.

So instead of trying to augur what they will anoint, I'll focus on what they should honor. Because I'm better than them. Or at least my taste is. And the nominees are.

Reality Competition

The Amazing Race 5
I didn't get into this reigning Emmy-champ (so far, it's the only series to ever win in this category) until its fifth go-round last summer, but once I did, I was hooked. It's easily the most tense, suspenseful, and unpredictable Reality show out there. Every episode packs more twists, turns and excitement than the average Hollywood thriller. On top of that, it's low on the slimy scheming that typifies the genre (at least it was before Boston Rob showed up) and it's less about schadenfreude than celebrating what ordinary people are capable of. In picking which of its three eligible seasons I would nominate, it was a tough call between 5 and 7 (eliminating the sub-par Season 6, with its cornucopia of loathsome dysfunctional couples, was simple), but I give 5 the edge partially because the game was fresh to me then as an Amazing Race-virgin and partially because it seemed purer without Rob and what's-her-name dominating the game and attention. Plus: Charla and Mirna!

America's Next Top Model Cycle 3
Another tough call between Cycles 3 and 4. Three had many more interesting personalities in the competition while 4 had contestants with fascinating backstories who weren't nearly as fun to watch (except when collapsing or getting screamed at by Tyra Banks). A Reality show is only as good as its personalities, so I've got to give it up for Cycle 3. But the truth is, this series has been consistently entertaining since Cycle 1, and is much better than you'd expect a show about model-wannabes on UPN to be. In fact, I'd say it's classier and better produced than the more praised job search show that ripped it off: The Apprentice. And Banks is, next to maybe Jeff Probst, the best Reality host on TV.

The Contender
This one just barely made my cut. It's kind of like those Oscar-whoring period pieces that you respect and admire more than you enjoy, yet feel compelled to heap praise upon. It didn't start out that way for The Contender (or for me). The first few episodes blew me away with how they reinvented the form and managed to immediately affect me on a gut level. Getting to know these boxers as three-dimensional human beings was compelling television. There were no villains and they all had inspirational backstories, which made those early bouts more emotionally involving than any I've ever seen on the silver screen (that includes the Oscar-whoring Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby and The Hurricane). The problem is, without villains, scheming, and profound character change, the series ran out of steam once we got to the second round and had met all the fighters and their families. As with Cycle 4 of Next Top Model, the personalities weren't as fascinating as the backstories, and watching not much happen outside the ring each week grew to be a tedious chore for me — and I still haven't gotten around to watching the two hour finale (never a good sign with a Reality Competition show). Still, Mark Burnett once again deserves credit for taking Reality in a new direction.

Project Runway
The rookie of the year and the most pleasant surprise of it. If you'd told me six months ago that I would watch a show about aspiring fashion designers, let alone nominate it for a fake Emmy, I would've called you a liar and spit in your face. So imagine my shock when I belatedly discovered the joys of this buzzed-about gem a week before its finale and quickly devoured the entire season. As with any breakout Reality sensation, the casting is paramount, and the inaugural season of Project Runway will go down as one of the best cast seasons of any Reality show ever. This is especially impressive given the relatively small pool of applicants they must've had since it required such a specific talent. Many of the characters were beyond bizarre, and yet they seemed 100% authentic (even Austin Scarlet) and never committed the cardinal sin of becoming irritating. As if the casting weren't enough, the challenges each week were ingenious, and unlike The Apprentice's, actually demonstrated the contestants' skills.

Survivor: Palau
After a couple of lackluster seasons, the grandpappy of them all showed 'em how it's done with one of its best installments since its glorious birth on Pulau Tiga. When maestro Mark Burnett tries too hard to switch up the game with outrageous twists, he misses as often as he hits (the infamous return of the Outcasts on Pearl Islands was considered a shark-jumper by many, but Thailand's merge-that-wasn't beautifully messed with every fan's expectations - especially Shi Ann's). So when it was announced that Palau would feature some of the biggest twists in Survivor history, I approached the tenth season with some trepidation. Well, I needn't have worried. Though the premature evacuation of two castaways was a tad unnecessary, everything from people picking their own teams schoolyard-style to the merge-that-never-was to the one-night banishment on loner-island made for a riveting game. Still, Burnett couldn't have predicted that this would lead to/coincide with the first winless tribe ever. And while a lopsided domination doesn't sound like it should be exciting, anybody who followed the Trojans last year knows how thrilling a streak can be. But the cherry on top was Stephenie — without a doubt the best female Survivor ever — who single-handedly warrants a second attempt at an All-Star season a couple years from now.

Reality Non-Competition

The Casino
I don't know why this show got such a bum rap. I found it to be a fun, glossy piece of summer entertainment with well-crafted (perhaps too well crafted?) stories. It was filled with colorful characters, both regular and guest starring. If anything, it became overly focused on serialized narratives that played out over its run, losing sight of the freaks-of-the-week attraction of setting a series in Las Vegas, but nevertheless, I was addicted and am waiting patiently for a second season. Hear that, Mike Darnell?

The Joe Schmo Show 2
I'm not really sure what, if any, category this series belongs in at The Emmys. Since its name isn't likely to be called on July 14, it doesn't really matter and I can put it wherever I want. Following up the first stellar installment was no easy feat, but Joe Schmo 2 was brilliant in its own right. Like its predecessor, it was a hysterical, insanely detailed satire of Reality (this time, the ripe-for-parody Dating Show sub-genre). Its references were often ridiculously obscure, which made getting them feel that much cooler and finally justified my viewing of entire episodes of Mr. Personality and Chains of Love. Unlike most modern satires (and most Reality shows, for that matter), The Joe Schmo Shows are truly good-hearted when it comes to their "victims". Oh, and in my imaginary Academy, smarmy host Ralph Garman is eligible (and nominated) for an Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy.

Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County
Another reinvention of the form, this show can be forgiven for at times being exceedingly dull. And yet, even that tedium totally befits the subject of this Reality soap opera. It's the Reality offering that so-far most resembles a scripted series in style, but ironically, it feels the least staged. Despite the lulls and uninteresting/unsympathetic stars, the series is oddly addictive and I can't wait for the second season to arrive.

Project Greenlight 3
I hadn't seen the first two seasons on HBO (though I did see Stolen Summer, so you owe me some slack), so I came into this most recent season fresh. What a fantastic show! More documentary than reality (though there does appear to be a lot of drama invented in the editing room), this series offers a fascinating glimpse into what it takes to put images on celluloid. It's so rare to get such a candid view into the inner workings of the film business and I'm shocked at how much of the dirty laundry Miramax allowed to be aired (let's hope poor Navi Rawat was, like most of America, not watching). Of course, the star of this season was the sometimes difficult to watch but impossible to look away from auteur, John Gulager.

Showdog Moms & Dads
Gulager was nothing compared to the car wrecks that were the title characters of Showdog Moms & Dads. Every week, this series could be counted on to be the most uncomfortable hour of television, but also one of the most hilarious. I didn't think that the absurd freaks of either Showbiz Moms & Dads or Best in Show could be made to look "normal", but that's exactly what Bravo's latest cringe-inducing sideshow accomplished. Maybe this belongs more on a guilty pleasures list than a best-of list, but for sheer entertainment value, you can't top a woman bemoaning her vagina-biting dog. If that doesn't scream Emmy, I don't know what does.

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