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Archive for Monday, October 26, 2009

Are we killing time or killing television?

October 26, 2009

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Cake is not a palate-cleanser. You don’t use dessert to remove a bad taste from your mouth. Or your network. Or a whole genre of television.

But the folks at TLC have been promoting the frosting out of the reality/fake sitcom “Cake Boss” (9 p.m., TLC), presumably as a distraction from the smoking wreckage of “Jon & Kate Plus 8” (8 p.m., TLC).

To be fair, the wretched shenanigans on “Jon & Kate” are hardly the worst examples of a TV genre that seems to be plumbing new depths on an almost daily basis. In the past few months, reality television has suffered a crime wave of sorts, a trend that threatens to put the odious genre on par with professional football.

“The Real Housewives of Atlanta” has been overshadowed by the murder of a cast member’s ex-fiance; a former winner of “Big Brother” was arrested for selling OxyContin; MTV aired a recovery/reality show “starring” a figure who had recently died of an overdose. A former contestant of “Megan Wants a Millionaire” became a person of interest in the murder of a model whose body was left in a trash bin. What’s next for VH1, “Who Wants to be the Next Phil Spector”?

No discussion of the seriously bad behavior encouraged by reality television can ignore the ridiculous “Balloon Boy” saga “starring” the son of two-time “Wife Swap” contestants. As soon as the reality-TV angle emerged, the human-interest story began to deflate.

I’m not shocked that the field of reality television has become so ugly. I’m just surprised it took this long to reach a critical, criminal mass.

Like a flame to gasoline, reality TV combines two powerful forces — some people’s need to be on camera under any circumstances and the desire of TV networks and production companies to pay as little as possible for programming. What do you expect when you fire writers and consign actors to the unemployment lines to shine a spotlight on a freakish subculture of professional exhibitionists?

The “star” of “Cake Boss” doesn’t seem to be a professional exhibitionist, or a jerk on par with those mentioned above. But neither is he a professional actor performing inspired dialogue, nor a terribly interesting person. He makes a nice cake. But soon, watching other people bake and bicker on camera and on cue becomes a deliberate act of killing time. And that’s perhaps the kindest way to describe the virtues of reality television.

Tonight’s other highlights

• “So You Think You Can Dance” (7 p.m., Fox) introduces the top 20.

• Matt has a radical notion on “Heroes” (7 p.m., NBC).

• “Dancing with the Stars” (7 p.m., ABC) continues.

• “Death Masks” (7 p.m., History) examines the plaster likenesses of famous people.

• Washington hosts Philadelphia on “Monday Night Football” (7:30 p.m., ESPN).

• A Halloween party goes out of bounds on “Trauma” (8 p.m., NBC).

• Cal’s old pal has a proposition on “Lie to Me” (8 p.m., Fox).

• “American Experience” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) spends the next five weeks looking at the 1930s. Tonight: a repeat of “The Crash of 1929” from 1990.

• Alexx returns on “CSI: Miami” (9 p.m., CBS).

• A would-be vampire plays for real stakes on “Castle” (9 p.m., ABC).

• A hip-hop veteran challenges and mentors former gang members on “No Excuses” (9:30 p.m., VH1).

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