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for May 2, 2005

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On Reality TV...
By TeeCee

Because I worked nights as a newspaper editor for several years, I tended to miss out on the birth of the reality TV thing. I think I'll always have a huge gap in my pop culture knowledge about why people cared about Regis Philbin's ties or what the Sue vs. Kelly dispute in "Survivor" season 1 was all about. And with the exception of "The Amazing Race" I still don't watch any network reality shows - I have never seen an "American Idol" or a "Bachelor" or "-Ette" and only watched "The Apprentice" once and found it too much like holidays with the relatives ("The cranberry salad was my idea, all she did was add the walnuts. So don't tell her that it's good or I'll tear out your expensive hair plug job.") There's a reason we don't schedule holidays for every Wednesday at nine.
But if you leave the spider-eating shows on the networks behind, there are a few reality-type shows out there on cable that are a little more fun. Here are a few I recommend.
"Junkyard Wars" (aka. "Scrapheap Challenge," aka "Junkyard Mega-Wars," aka "Operation Junkyard" aka "My Big, Fat Obnoxious Mechanic")
The basics: This is a brilliant concept where two teams roam a junkyard looking for parts for a machine of some sort, then the machines fight it out. Like a lot of the best TV, it was originally a British show and there are both British and American episodes floating around now. TLC pulls them out now and then, but they air most regularly on the Science Channel.
What makes it work: For one thing, they get a wide variety of teams - often mechanics but also MIT grad students, bikers, or sculptural artists - with names like Wenches with Wrenches or Kentucky Fried Family or Art Attack. Like all reality TV, part of it is fixed - they often hide perfectly new working parts around the junkyard. There have been times that the host will be questioning a team about what they need and the team members will complain that they can't find a working engine. Meanwhile, the host is tapping his foot on one of the brand-new engines they planted and the team will remain oblivious. Most often the machines they build will more-or-less work although it's not unusual for teams to get to the starting line and realize they installed their engine backwards and will have to run the entire race in reverse gear. In the first season, they actually held the competition right after the 10-hour build so you also got to watch people trip over things or bang their heads a lot but I'm guessing some insurance company screamed about that. It sounds like a guy show, but it's also good for women who like to laugh at guys, and for kids. If my kid becomes an engineer instead of his other option of cowboy dinosaur racer, creator Cathy Rogers is getting a big thank you note from our house.
The best episode: The walking machines. One machine worked perfectly, just really really slowly which is not an advantage in a race. The other machine was fast, but also smashed bits of itself apart on every step. The team on the fast machine ended up stripping off most of their clothing in the course of the race attempting to tie pieces of the machine back together with shoestrings and belts. It was a photo finish.
"The House Doctor" (aka, "Sell This House!" aka, "Ferrets in the Kitchen")
The basics: The "House Doctor" airs on BBC America, while there's a less amusing version on A&E. The idea is that people who have their house up for sale for a while eventually call in someone to help them make it more marketable.
What makes it work: The house doctor is an American working in England and Scotland. Often the Brits refer to her as a "brash Californian" which those in America know makes as much sense as "laid-back New Yorker." She seems pretty easygoing but all of the Brits find her very rude. It makes me think that if an actual New Yorker comes to town they use air-raid sirens and lock the windows and doors until the threat passes. Although all of these people have put their house up for sale on their own, it obviously never occurs to most of them that after they sell the house they won't live there anymore. A common complaint is "but it doesn't feel like my house anymore" as if they had planned their sales contract to include weekend visits to the mold behind the refrigerator. A lot of the home sellers will resist every step of the way, from cleaning the bathroom, to painting the obnoxious wallpaper, to having large holes in the wall repaired. The pet owners are the worst. Even when they show the sellers video of every potential buyer walking in saying the place stinks, the sellers insist that's part of the house's character and mustn't be changed. Some of the sellers have thrown fits at the mere suggestion that the ferret cages should probably not be in the kitchen or that filling half of the master bedroom with large parrot cages may be putting some buyers off.
The best episode: This woman raising 15 poodles in the house put up a fight about every single thing that was recommended, including trying to improve the smell. At one point she demanded that potential buyers wanting to see her house had to sign an affidavit swearing they were dog lovers. Somehow, the house doctor got a few improvements made in the place but at the end of the episode, the woman grabbed the producer on the way out the door and told them they had to put everything back like it was including dumpster diving for her discarded puppy-stained carpets to put over the newly refinished wood floors. I'm pretty sure her house is still for sale - and that a padded wagon has taken up residence around the corner because it's just a matter of time…
"Mythbusters" (aka, "Me Want Big Boom," aka, "Crash Test Dummy Autopsy")
The basics: Two movie special-effects guys test out a bunch of urban-legend-type myths to see if they could really happen. The myths often involve explosions but also include body fluids with astonishing regularity. On Discovery.
What makes it work: While questions like "Can you blow up a cement truck with half a ton of plastic explosives?" seem obvious, some of the tests are more subtle. And it's educational - where else are you going to learn that quilt batting makes a good water filter for a ton of wet, fine sand in a sewage tank? Sometimes I think they're running out of myths to test. A recent episode had them testing to see whether an electronic appliance thrown into a bathtub could cause a bather some type of injury. I'm pretty sure that's called cold, hard fact. There's a message board where you can go and suggest myths for them to try but every time I've thought of one it's included on their "don't ask us this" list. But if you want to have a lot of fun just go to the message board and use the words "chicken gun" in a sentence and see what happens. This show is pretty much for the guys too but will have appeal for women that like to see guys getting hurt, having to do entire projects twice because someone forgot to carry a one, or being buried alive. Hmm, actually more women might watch it than men.
The best episode: Honestly, they're all good though the first-season ones have a "grandpa taping the kids in the back yard" quality to them. My favorite myth was testing whether talking to plants makes them grow better. Simple pea plants were subjected to several noises including love speech, hate speech, and both classical and death metal music to see which would create the best growing conditions. General finding - plants don't care although all of the noise plants grew better than the plants in silence and the death metal plants did quite well, thank you, although a salad made from them robbed a bank two days later.


©2005 TeeCee

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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