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From 'Superstars of Dance' to 'Homeland Security': No departures from reality

January 5, 2009 |  5:48 pm


Though unscripted, these shows follow a recognizable script.

"Human kind cannot bear very much reality," wrote T.S. Eliot, but as regards the television kind we have apparently not yet reached our limit. This first full week of the 2009 winter TV season brings a riot of new unscripted series, in a variety of fundamentally familiar flavors. We love reality shows because we see ourselves there in a way we don't in, say, "CSI: Wherever" -- at least, one hopes not -- and because it is easier to love or hate or root for or against real people, even when you know you're being manipulated, than it is to love or hate the completely invented kind.

"Superstars of Dance," which premiered Sunday night on NBC (Mondays at 8 p.m. is its regular time slot), is the latest in a slew of terpsichorean throw-downs -- we like watching people dance, it seems, even more than we like hearing them sing. Coming on in a flood of hyperbole -- host Michael Flatley, whose name roughly describes his hosting style, is "the most popular dancer in the world" -- it is strictly a battle of professionals, with a nationalist twist: Eight countries (Argentina, Australia, China, India, Ireland, Russia, South Africa and the United States, boo-ya!) put up dance teams, duos and soloists, versed in native and imported styles. At the end of the night, based on cumulative, Olympic-style scores from a panel of judges (one from each country, and enjoined from voting for their own), one whole country goes home. Dances can be ridiculous or relatively sublime, but I like the international flavor.

Last night brought ABC's "True Beauty" (10 p.m.), from the desks of Tyra Banks and Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher has previously given the world "Beauty and the Geek" and "Punk'd," whose themes and methods his new show combines. Here, 10 good-looking people, male and female, are gathered together in what they believe is a contest to be named "America's most beautiful person," their fitness to be determined by the typical trio of relevant experts, including Cheryl Tiegs, and the prizes to include $100,000 cash and a spot in People magazine's "Beautiful People" issue. What they're actually being tested for is character. (Banks and Kutcher are themselves, of course, hot.) From the preview clips I've seen -- this is being written prior to air -- we are in for an orgy of misplaced self-love.

"Homeland Security U.S.A.," which starts at 8 tonight on ABC, follows the agents of various forms of border patrol, including the virtual borders that exist inside every international airport and main post office terminal.

Like "Cops" or "Parking Wars," it pits people in uniform against people who have made bad decisions. These range from the fairly benign -- a Swiss belly dancer who cannot quite understand the concept of a work permit ("She says she's here for a vacation, but something seems amiss with this Swiss miss," intones our narrator) -- to the absolutely criminal.

A lot of drugs are hauled in at the borders, and a "prohibited meat item of unknown origin" (barbecued bat, it is decided) turns up at the post office. The shadow of terrorism fuels the pumped-up narrative, even though no terrorists are encountered. (But drugs, we are told, more than once, fund terrorism.) Illegal immigration from the south is somewhat soft-pedaled by making that segment about a team whose job it is to rescue immigrants from a desert death. The show seems designed to make you feel reassured and threatened at the same time. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," says one officer. "It's like catching a needle in a haystack."

"13: Fear Is Real," which begins at 8 p.m. Wednesday on the CW, is a horror-movie reality competition, "Survivor" dressed as "Friday the 13th" and other such pick-off-the-hot-kids blood feasts. ("The Evil Dead" director Sam Raimi is an executive producer -- real horror cred.) Thirteen handsome young people are carted out to the Louisiana bayou, where an unseen villain called "The Mastermind" sets terrible challenges; we are to consider the losers "dead." (The last one standing receives a satanically appropriate prize of $66,666.)

You might call it "The Real World: Spooky Swamp," with the pleasant dormitory being replaced by a creepy shack. But while it must have been scary to go through -- it's no picnic being buried alive, I would guess -- it is not particularly scary to watch. The structure of the thing keeps reminding you that it's a TV show, and the players -- some of them, anyway -- are too mindful of their place in the fiction. "The ditzy blond is always the one to die first," says the ditzy blond.

The umpteenth variation of "Candid Camera," NBC's "Howie Do It," does not premiere until 8 p.m. Friday, and though I have not seen the show in full, there are enough clips on the NBC website to indicate just the sort of foot it aims to put forward. What seems to primarily distinguish it from all the other shows in which unsuspecting citizens are drawn into a situation in which they are made to look silly is that Howie Mandel is in it.

In one segment, a woman does yoga next to a man who loudly breaks wind. In another, a man who believes he is participating in a magic trick is made to stick his fingers up his nose to retrieve a piece of candy that Howie (in a wig, pretending to be a magician) has persuaded him might be in there. Then another man, a shill, retrieves from his underwear another piece of candy that the first is asked to put in his mouth. Whether he does or not is reserved for broadcast, but having read this far, you already know whether or not this show will be your piece of underwear-extracted candy.

-Robert Lloyd

ON PATROL: ABC’s “Homeland Security U.S.A.” shows border protection at various locations, including airports. Credit: ABC