Bravo’s latest “reality” offering has all the self-promoting but none of the drama that made the shameless Bethenny Frankel so compelling to watch.
Just 10 years ago, this country was engaged in a glorious time of raw innovation and discovery, when experimentation and spontaneity reigned supreme. I’m referring, of course, to the golden age of reality TV, a magical time when the jackasses roamed wild and free. On every channel, there was something unpredictable and deeply stupid unfolding.
Back then, the untamed young jackasses were rounded up and herded onto various reality TV soundstages without ever understanding why. They weren’t aspiring actors or bored housewives. They weren’t extreme fitness buffs or survivalists with a passion for MacGyver reruns. They had no products or services to promote. They weren’t there to educate us about the odd speech patterns or behavioral tics or rampant prejudices of any particular cultural microcosm.
Ye olde jackasses were blank slates. They were highly suggestible. They could be molded into whatever shape or form you needed at the moment. If you put 15 hot girls in bikinis in front of them, let loose a little dry ice, and whispered the word “temptation!” they would obediently mumble, “Temptation, temptation. Man, I feel so tempted right now.” If you put a drink in their hands with a little umbrella in it and murmured “Paradise!,” their eyes would immediately grow wide. “This place is paradise,” they’d say. “I want to stay here forever!” And if you’d ever put smudgy black stuff on their faces and handed them old-timey rifles and asked them to crawl around in dirty trenches, it would’ve only been a matter of time before one of them got bayoneted.
Sadly, though, ye olde jackasses no longer wander the airwaves, obeying reality producers’ commands like dutiful pets. These days, the jackasses bleach their teeth. They have business cards in their hands, and those cards don’t say “Professional Jackass,” under their names, either. They say things like “Events Promoter” and “Fashion Consultant.” Today’s jackasses have an agenda, and they almost never go off-message. Getting them to go off-message takes real work.
Take 100 Days of Summer, one of Bravo’s latest reality series, which airs its season-one finale on Wednesday night, despite having been shot two summers ago (so much for reality). The show is ostensibly about single jackasses who frolic about in Chicago in the summertime. Chicago is flat-out off the hook during the summer months, too, if we can believe the high-rent jackasses with names like Phillips and Pascale who’ve been selected to appear therein. To hear them tell it, the second the mercury rises above 60 degrees, everybody in Chicago puts on their bathing suits and they get in their boats and then they anchor them right next to each other on the lake, and that’s when they make the humpy motions with their hips and the “Party! Yeah!” gestures with their hands, to signal how off the hook it all is. And … then they go home.
I won’t lie. The bikinis and the booze and the boats seem promising.
But they never do that again. And it soon becomes clear that, instead of herding a giant group of terrible jackasses together and then figuring out which jackasses are The Most Terrible, like Bravo (and Fox, etc.) used to do in the old days, instead of even herding a bunch of specific “types” together (Unhappy Rich Women Who Drink to Excess In Orange County, for example), what Bravo apparently does now is handpick attractive-ish but still sort of terrible jackasses with stupid things to promote. So now, instead of humpy motions and high-fiving on the lake, we have to listen to an event promoter, a wannabe real-estate mogul, a designer of matching people-and-dog clothing, and some kind of sports model’s agent, all babbling on about their awful-sounding careers.
Moreover, instead of simply whispering “Paradise!” or “Sexytime!” to these people, the producers have apparently convinced them that they’re on a show about gorgeous, ultra-special elite business types in Chicago who are about to break wide with their idiotic entrepreneurial fantasies. How do Bravo producers convince them of this? By pointing right at Bethenny Frankel from the Real Housewives franchise, no doubt. Bethenny made SkinnyGirl margaritas into a bestselling brand for the teaming masses of underfed drunks out there, plus she has a talk show where she engages in “real talk” with the underfed drunks of the reality-TV world. All of which sounds like a pretty cushy career, until you remember that her guests are human beings pre-selected for their terribleness. Here’s a sample:
Omarosa tells Bethenny, “It’s different between you and I. I’m an African-American woman. You get to walk around and be mediocre and you still get rewarded for things.”
And, OK, who really cares what Bethenny says after that? Because Omarosa, who is truly terrible and almost always wrong, pretty much hits the hammer squarely on the head here. Because isn’t this the unspoken dream of every person on every reality-TV show today, that they’ll one day “get to walk around and be mediocre and still get rewarded for things”?
Bethenny is living the dream. And all she had to do to become queen bee of her Underfed Drunk Empire was, you know, throw her new husband and baby under the buh—er, into the spotlight (in two consecutive Real Housewives of New York spinoff shows with monster ratings, Bethenny Getting Married? and Bethenny Ever After). Which subsequently tore apart her marriage as the cameras rolled. But Bethenny, like any good brand manager, knew that this marital destruction would deliver big-time drama, and big-time drama builds brand recognition, which holds the key to how underfed drunks make purchasing decisions. (“Noway. Chickon rullhousewife skinnyass fuck, Ima get thishit.”) Bethenny wisely sold the SkinnyGirl drink franchise just as her jackass star was reaching its peak, and now she’s $100 million richer. Thanks to her Faustian bargain with the reality-TV demigods, she’ll be walking around and being mediocre for the rest of her days on Earth.
Sadly for us, though, there is a major difference between ye olde fun-loving shows about sexy singles that were stocked with wild, free jackasses, and the new “sexy single entrepreneur” shows populated by aspiring Bethenny Frankels. Recall that the jackasses of yore would happily toss back a half-dozen mai tais and then start unleashing the full power of their scathing stupidity on the world (See also “You cannot argue with me. I have lawyer in me,” in the immortal words of Zack from Paradise Hotel). But the aspiring Bethenny Frankels of the world spend most of their time taking dull meetings and getting their brand-new business cards printed up. Or they throw bad promotional events (which they, rather bizarrely, refer to as “parties”) and invite their Aspiring-Bethenny acquaintances (which they, rather bizarrely, refer to as “friends”). And none of the above is off the hook in the slightest. Plus, some of it is scripted.
Now, there were those who claimed that “All Reality TV Is Totally Scripted” a full decade ago. Clearly these were people who never watched Temptation Island and Paradise Hotel. Because the sheer brilliant idiocy dripping out of the jackasses’ mouths on those shows was far too bizarre and spontaneous and moronic ever to have been scripted by anyone. And who would’ve bothered to sit down and write douche-y explosions on the page, when all you really had to do was give the jackasses some strong drinks and sit them by the pool, and watch as they’d then immediately conspire to create their own flavor of drunken excess and purgatory?
Goddamn it, those were good times.
But now! Now you have to wait for the aspiring Bethennys to get all styled up, and then you have to haul them all out to lunch with each other and make them pretend to be collaborating on various products and promotional events (when they’re not even real businesspeople and have no idea how to collaborate, let alone pretend to collaborate). And then you have to make them engage in backbiting and gossip, which is really hard to do, because they don’t care about each other in the slightest. All they care about is their crappy products and services. All they care about is walking around and being mediocre and still getting rewarded for things.
This is exactly what happened on 100 Days of Summer. The apparent star of the show, Pascale—who, in the old days, would’ve appeared onscreen with the words “The Hot One” under her face—has no apparent people skills. She is the shadiest of shade throwers. She doesn’t understand the rules and boundaries of female friendship and acquaintanceship, and anyway, she couldn’t care less. So far so good, right? But instead of fucking shit up and making other girls cry like any self-hating heroine of reality TV’s golden age would’ve, Pascale just wants to promote her jewelry line, which looks like it might eventually find a nice home at Chico’s. She doesn’t want to talk about the fact that everyone seems to secretly hate her. She moved back from L.A. to … appear on a TV show? No, to design and promote her jewelry. Because that’s her dream, remember? (Don’t even ask what she was doing in L.A. Just. Don’t.)
Similarly, Vince, who one senses could really reach full bloom in a more appropriate drunky-paradise type of setting, instead spends most of his time talking up his promotional-event business. Sure, he says dumb things by accident (“My type is thin. One missed meal from anorexia”). But mostly he burbles on self-importantly about throwing the coolest parties for the coolest … snore.
So that’s when the producers realize that they need to start sticking their dirty fingers into some pies—big time. That’s when Jay (real-estate mogul-ette) magically mentions to Pascale (the hot one) that Vince (douche) is rumored to be cheating on his girlfriend Jessica (innocent bystander who’s worried that she might be dating a douche). Pascale mentions these cheating allegations to Phillips (dog-and-owner-matching-outfits creator) who tells Tara (veterinarian who wants her boyfriend to put a ring on it, like, yesterday). Tara tells Vince who tells Jessica who corners Pascale (Not Jay, who started it!) and screams at her in the bathroom.
OK, the screaming in the bathroom part, that’s old-fashioned reality goodness. But what happens right after that? Tara and Phillips leave the party. Why? Because they don’t want to be associated with anything trashy like, you know, screaming, and bathrooms. (And, uh, reality-TV shows?) Phillips has a solemn dog-outfit business to run, and wants to project an image of professionalism at all times. (Example: She says of her boob job, “Best present I ever got myself.”) Tara has a brand to promote, too: Herself, as her boyfriend Mark’s bride. Her product is Tara, With A Ring On It. She can’t afford to sully her brand, which she states outright. “Mark is not into drama. If he thinks I’m hanging out with all these drama queens like Pascale, he may be like ‘Well, that’s not the kind of girl I want to marry.’”
So there’s tension in this scene, but not due to any real conflict between any of the characters, but due to promotional efforts that may or may not get sullied by all of the screaming. This tension is the driving force of the scene, and the whole stupid show.
And are clumsy, dimwitted attempts at branding somehow qualitatively different than the big egos and tiny brains that used to drive these shows? I’m going to say yes, very different. Because watching drunk jackasses squabble in their bikinis is fun. Whereas watching egotistical jackasses hand out business cards is a little bit like wandering into an executive recruiting session in a hotel banquet room by accident, when all you really wanted was the breakfast buffet.
So enough with the aspiring brand managers of 100 Days of Summer (and Blood, Sweat & Heels, and Vanderpump Rules, and Toned Up). And enough with the housewives and the cultural microcosms while we’re at it. Give us back the wild, untamed jackasses that we so richly deserve.
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