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Reality Check.

By Adrienne Martini

JUNE 19, 2000:  Say what you will about the vapidity of your average TV executive—you know, the ones who cancel shows with heart, intellect, and promise like the dear, departed Sports Night. While as a species they can't recognize the good stuff, they are remarkable for their ability to blend into the herd through an ingenious trait to simply copy any successful formula. Hour-long dramas about hospitals have hit it big? Well, let's give the American public four more. Folks are eagerly tuning in to a show about nothing? Here's half a dozen others with a similar lack of plot. Chameleons could learn tricks from these guys.

The hot new thing in television is "reality," which the Bunim/Murray people (who brought The Real World and Road Rules to the great unwashed at MTV) have been doing for a decade. But the big boys at the networks have caught the trend at last, probably they realized how much cheaper it is to film non-actors who don't need writers nor costumes nor a studio audience.

This summer has produced a rash of reality-based programming, starting with Making the Band (Fridays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC), a Bunim/Murray production that follows the trials of eight young, cute boys who want to be the next Backstreet N'Sync-type band to hit the pop charts. The show, however, is mired in a disturbing puddle of stasis. Nothing has really happened for the last few episodes, proving that a script just might make these vapid guys a lot more interesting.

CBS, of course, has weighed in as well with the much-hyped Survivor (Wednesdays at 8 p.m.). Sixteen people have been dumped on an island called Pulau Tiga. One will walk off with a cool mil. Each week one of the two tribes must vote one contestant off of the island, which has led to a wonderful illustration of Darwin's principles.

My favorite thus far, though, is PBS' The 1900 House (Mondays at 9 p.m.). Not only do you get to see a modern English family step back in time to live in a turn-of-the-century townhouse that has been renovated back to its original state (no electricity, no indoor toilet, among other things), the four-part series is also an education in plumbing, gas lights, psychology, and suffrage. The Bowler family doesn't win any prizes at the end, nor will the show lead to any lucrative endorsement deals. But, perhaps, this candid and humorous documentary will give us some insight into just how lucky we are, despite the carbon-copied programs on the telly.


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