I don't get Spike, does anyone here?
James on "Boy Meets Boy," Bravo's gay dating show, which will offer its final episode tonight.
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Janet Van Ham/Spike TV
From left, Brian Keith Etheridge, an actor; Matt; and David Hornsby, another actor, on the satire "Joe Schmo."
THE TV WATCH
Frontier of Surreality: Mocking Reality Shows
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
Con artists and seventh graders know that people can be made to believe almost anything, so it is not astounding that Matt, a would-be contestant on Spike TV's first reality show, "Joe Schmo," does not suspect that the whole thing is a hoax.
He does not blink at modeling women's panties.
He is unfazed by a contest called "hands on the high-priced hooker."
He does raise his eyebrows during the first elimination round, known as the "riches to rags eviction ceremony," when the actor playing the smarmy host somberly states that the person voted off must "say goodbye to high society and return to your sad existence working for the man."
Reality backlash has finally arrived. Spike TV's mock reality show — an elaborate sendup of "Survivor" and its even sillier reality ripoffs like "Joe Millionaire" and "The Family" — begins tonight at the same time (9 p.m., Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time) as the finale of Bravo's gay dating reality show, "Boy Meets Boy." The gay bachelor, James, was finally told that some of his suitors were secretly straight. Tonight one of the impostors is among the three finalists. If James chooses Mr. Wrong, the heterosexual wins $25,000, and James goes home alone.
Next Monday Bravo is taking a more jaundiced look at the reality craze with "The Reality of Reality: How Real is Real?," a documentary that suggests that these shows are ruthlessly edited in favor of entertainment, not truth.
That is a bit like announcing that tobacco might be harmful, but the program goes to the trouble of connecting long-forgotten dots. Bravo interviews a "Survivor" contestant who says he got help from the camera crew. A woman tossed off the first "Temptation Island" says the producers knew all along she had a child back home and staged an on-camera expulsion to spice up the show.
The Mike Wallace tone is a bit much coming from a cable network that just completed "Boy Meets Boy" and still has a a major hit with its saucy makeover show, "Queer Eye for a Straight Guy." But Bravo prides itself on high-minded reality shows: both "Boy" and "Queer Eye" were designed to demystify homosexuality and show gay men in a positive, appealing light.
Side by side, however, Bravo and Spike TV also reinforce all the male stereotypes: gay men are sweet, self-deprecating and caring while heterosexual men are crudely childish.
The two-hour premiere of "Joe Schmo," Spike TV's first big show since the cable network for men changed its name from TNN this summer (the makeover was delayed by a lawsuit filed by Spike Lee) lives up to the frat boy image. A pitiless parody, "Joe Schmo" nevertheless seeks to hook viewers with the two pillars of reality television: suspense and the squirmy pleasure of watching people embarrass themselves on national television.
The deadpan parody of shows set in chateaus and McMansions is wickedly funny. (Matt is told he will be competing on a show called "The Lap of Luxury." When a contestant is eliminated, a "Lap of Luxury" collector's plate embossed with the contestant's face, is tossed into the fireplace. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," the host intones solemnly. "You are dead to us." )
But because Matt, a law school dropout who lives with his parents in Pittsburgh and delivers pizzas, is the only butt of an elaborate, yearlong joke played by producers, directors, actors and technicians, some viewers might find the premise too cruel to watch.
Husky, good-natured and eerily confident (he calls himself "the Matt-man" and tries to be a leader) Matt provides plenty of mortifying material.
Luckily for him he is surrounded by co-stars who prove that Hitchcock was too kind when he said that actors should be treated as cattle. These at least need much firmer direction.
Eight were cast to impersonate stock reality show characters, ranging from Ashleigh, "The Rich #####," to Kip, "the Gay Guy." They forget their own cover stories and make blunders so careless that even Matt looks puzzled.
Like Matt the actors are interviewed at the end of each day. They talk about their craft and their fear of exposure, and they express conspiratorial glee at Matt's malleability. Unlike some of the impostors on "Boy Meets Boy," who express qualms about deceiving people they have befriended, none of the actors express pity for their victim or remorse.
The real twist of "Joe Schmo" could be that the joke is on the actors. Like Stanley Milgram's infamous psychology experiments at Yale in the early 1960's, when students who agreed to inflict pain on other volunteers were actually the subjects of the study, the actors' callous self-absorption is far more laughable than Matt's gaffes and goofy moments. A more suitable title might have been "Actor, Schmactor."
Yeah, wait for .... "Reality Bites."