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Green Bay Press-Gazette

Monday, October 26, 2009

Why all reality TV shouldn't get a bad rap

In the aftermath of the Balloon Boy hoax, a murderous contestant appearing on VH1's "Megan Wants a Millionaire" and recent channel flips past anything with "Real Housewives," "Hills" or "Kardashian" in the title proving to be the grand work of Satan, you'd have perfectly good reason to write off any and all reality TV from now until the end of time.

But even as television execs sink lower and lower by exhuming the likes of Lorenzo Lamas and Antonio Sabato Jr., there are a few delicate rose petals buried at the bottom of the Gosselin diaper pile if you dig deep enough.

In fact, to say that all reality TV is created equal would be like saying that all Green Bay Packers fans go around stabbing random dudes in Minneapolis. So in order to clear reality TV's bad name, here are a few entries on my DVR tally that are not only worth watching, but are worth celebrating:

"The Amazing Race"

I've said it before, I'll say it again: "The Amazing Race" is the best reality show on TV. Emmy streak aside, the honor has more to do with a tried-and-true formula that keeps delivering winning results 15 seasons in. Oddly, "The Race" settled in the sweltering oasis for Dubai for two straight episodes, and last night's installment -- while fairly pedestrian in terms of the challenge component -- was among the richest in drama.

A large portion of "The Race's" appeal is that its contestants usually settle in the background as the geography and interesting local customs take center stage. But last night, Jesus-happy couple Mika and Canaan (you had to figure these folks were extremely religious with a name like Canaan) were pushed to the limit because Mika (that'd be the hot blonde, not the douche who looks like a Backstreet Boy) refused to go down a waterslide at the Atlantis resort.

That's right, folks. The only move necessary to stave off elimination was a ride down a 10-second waterslide, one a 7-year-old on a sugar bender would have completed faster than you could say "Geronimo." Instead, Mika's freakout allowed the Harlem Globetrotters tandem of Flight Time and Big Easy to squeak by -- but not before adding to the delicious drama atop the slide.

First, Canaan -- in a very un-Jesus like move -- almost threw his girlfriend down the slide. Yep. He grabbed her like a sack of potatoes and tried to toss her down, prompting Mika to scream "Help me, help me!" to the hapless Arab slide attendant, who unfortunately, is likely used to seeing the mistreatment of women day in-day out. After unsuccessfully accosting her -- and later trying to reason ever so gently with his gal pal -- Canaan pouted on the ground as the Globetrotters caught up. However, as the second team to arrive to the same challenge spot, they had to wait two minutes to slide down.

That's when things turned ugly. And by ugly, I mean really, really funny.

With the clock continuing to tick, Big Easy began to play cruel mind games with Mika, telling her, "Man, I wouldn't go down. It's high." Nerves rattled, Mika remained paralyzed at the top. Canaan, meanwhile, failed to appreciate the genius strategy, calling Big Easy a "piece of crap" for making his girlfriend cry.

In the end, Mika had to step away. The Globetrotters flew down the slide and were the last team to check in, sending God's children on their way back to church, probably for some good ol' fashioned forgiveness for bathing so closely to the waters of sin.

Now that's great TV.

"The Amazing Race" airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on ABC.

"Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Ruins"

I have tried unsuccessfully to wean myself completely from these gratuitous MTV installments.

But there's also something oddly likable about watching 20-something (in some cases, 30-something) men and women act like complete infants in what can only be deemed the "Real World" bubble of D-list celebrity. These are people who only hang around each other, only date each other, and upon leaving the cozy confines of MTV reality land, make appearances in crappy college towns as "celebrity bartenders" because they have nothing else to do but update their MySpace pages.

Yet I love every minute of watching these buffoons, probably because it reminds me so much of high school yet I don't have to be bothered to turn in my reunion RSVP card.

This season's drama has been the most extreme yet, with Wes, the Ugliest Man with the Ugliest Shirts in TV history (at left), almost getting in at least three major fistfights, while last week, Crazy Tonya drunkenly began slapping the taste out of Veronica's month due to an old "Mean Girls" style rivalry.

Again, all the glorious high school drama without the need to see that one girl you used to have a crush on -- you know, only to realize she's now gained 200 pounds and crapped out three kids. Win, win, right?

"The Ruins" airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on MTV.

"Top Chef"

We write a lot about "Top Chef," largely because it's a show about food (and who doesn't love food?), but also because the chefs are captivating personalities who truly bleed passion for their craft.

Maybe last season's disappointing finale lowered the bar, but overall, this has been the most gripping installment of the Bravo show thanks to a deep, talented field that continues to keep us guessing. Last week's Restaurant Wars installment only amplified the drama -- with Jen almost getting the axe while Robin somehow continues to defy the odds.

When the final three is announced in a few weeks, it's going to be a major disappointment considering there are four potential "Top Chefs" among the current crew (seriously, Stefan would barely crack the top five this season.) Once dead weight Robin and Eli are gone, the game is officially on.

"Top Chef" airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on Bravo.

"The Next Iron Chef"

Hosted by the always-affable Alton Brown, "Next Iron Chef" does exactly what the title proclaims. The show runs the gamut of challenges in an ultimate test of culinary chops determined by "Iron Chef" chairman and "Dancing with the Stars" contestant Mark Decascos. The winner will apparently replace Mario Batali and join Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, Cat Cora and Michael Symon on "Iron Chef America."

Lost in the shuffle because of "Top Chef" timing, "Next Iron Chef" isn't quite as riveting or filled with polarizing personalities as its Bravo counterpart. But the challenges are creative (can't say I've ever seen someone cook with stinky tofu before), the food always looks delicious (well, except for the stinky tofu) and the competitive spirit makes for a fast-paced hour of television. Also, long-time "Iron Chef America" judge Jeffrey Steingarten's crusty observations are always good for a laugh or two.

"The Next Iron Chef" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on Food Network.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

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