Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Reality TV and The Benefactor

Salon.com's Heather Havrilesky writes a worthy defense of reality television. (Per the site's protocol, you'll need to click on an ad to read the article.) It's fashionable to deride the genre, but I'll openly admit to liking some of the shows. SURVIVOR and THE AMAZING RACE are two of TV's most entertaining programs. (I've mentioned before that THE AMAZING RACE might be the best show on the tube.) Even though I came around late last season to THE APPRENTICE, I was pleasantly surprised that it makes for fun viewing. (The second season looks good so far, especially if Raj, the guy who looks like he stepped out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, sticks around.) BIG BROTHER, which has usually held more of a train wreck appeal than anything, has made big strides in quality in its fifth season, although I still hesitate to call the show "good".

Yes, but what about EXTREME MAKEOVER and THE SWAN or one-off projects THE LITTLEST GROOM and MAN VS. BEAST, you ask? What about them? Where is it written that reality TV must be defined by its (presumably) worst examples? After all, SEINFELD isn't considered disreputable because THE SECRET DIARY OF DESMOND PFEIFFER, another sitcom, is widely thought to be awful.

For the time being, the average reality show is more interesting than a run-of-the-mill comedy or drama. Because they center on competition, the twists and results are often less predictable than you get in more conventional fare. Even when a traditional sitcom or drama uncorks a shocker, chances are viewers already know, whether from spoiler-heavy promos or entertainment reports of departing cast members. The best reality shows have the open-ended conclusion of a sporting event.

Which brings me to THE BENEFACTOR, the latest reality show I've come across. Billionaire Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban brings in sixteen people to put them to the test for a million dollar prize. In the first episode the premise plays like a B-movie in which some obscenely wealthy, half-cocked guy invites a group to his mansion to compete for money and then proceeds to terrorize them.

THE BENEFACTOR looks to be more freeform than its brethren. Cuban can dimsiss who he wants, when he wants, for whatever reason he wants rather than follow a format. Last night he eliminated three contestants for the following reasons: one called the game stupid, another didn't seem to match the risk-taking spirit she showed in her entry video, and a third lost a game of Jenga. Granted, he can't send three people packing each week, but the rules for staying in the game are more loosely defined. Essentially, you want to keep Cuban happy. This opens up the show to more potential producer interference and manipulation of the results than you would get on THE AMAZING RACE. I won't be surprised if those with photogenic looks and large personalities stick around longer to enhance the entertainment aspect. Still, the show's random nature might give it the zing it needs to differentiate from the competition.

Say what you will about Cuban--some are certain to find him to be an arrogant jackass--but he isn't boring. (As a pro sports franchise owner, he's serious about winning too.) This guy ought to be more entertaining than Fox's reality show with billionaire Richard Branson. Oh yeah, and he keeps a a blog.

THE BENEFACTOR doesn't look like it will equal the better reality shows, but it's a good lead-in to Monday Night Football. Better this than a couple of bland domestic sitcoms or another news magazine show.

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