Share this article

print logo

What happens when actual reality hits TV’s ‘reality’ contests?

Ryan Lochte is still there. He can’t dance but he stumbles around gracefully so they haven’t yet evicted him from “Dancing With the Stars.”

No matter. The disgraced contestant already has been the center of this fall season’s most electrifying prime-time moment. A couple of weeks ago, when Carrie Ann Inaba was critiquing his performance, two demonstrators emerged from the audience shouting “Liar! You’re a liar!” and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his name and a line through it.

In a remarkable prime-time moment, a security fellow crashed into one of them and knocked him to the dance floor as unceremoniously as Cam Newton was bounced all over the turf by the Denver Broncos.

For the first time that I can remember, some actual pungent reality lent its genuine ugliness and disorder to prime-time “reality” television.

Cynics, of course, might well wonder if all of this was, secretly, the only way the show could drum up sympathy for the guy. As soon as the anti-Lochte demonstrators showed up, the show’s stalwarts – judge Inaba and pro dancer Derek Hough – became vocal about the need for their removal, lest the show’s “positive” vibe be infected by real dissent.

In the audience, it definitely harshed our mellow.

What happened then was remarkable: A knucklehead swimmer who got drunk and trashed a gas station in Rio and then became an international incident when he lied about it was transformed into an American underdog by demonstrators whose rudeness brought WAY too much reality into reality TV.

The beauty of the show since is that the disgust on the faces of the show’s judges every time they have to deal with Lochte’s dancing has been palpable and fascinating. The show’s “head judge” Len Goodman, looks as if he’s sucking a lemon every time he has to critique Lochte. There is no getting around it: The guy brought genuine obloquy to a show whose stock-in-trade is uplift and normalizing the participation of some of the most unlikely people.

That’s always been the show’s secret mission – to celebrate what photographer Edward Steichen used to call “The Family of Man.” Lochte’s international idiot moment came after the show booked him and presented the show with a new problem. This is a show that, in cliched terms, prides itself on heartening portrayals of the human spirit – dancers with prosthetic legs, deaf dancers, and this season, a gutsy “little person” (Terra Jole) “competing” against huge odds. To have a certifiable spoiled jerk jock on the show may not disturb bighearted fellow contestants but the judges have, thus far, been visibly disgusted by the presence of someone they clearly consider unworthy of the show’s magic spray tans.

This has been hugely interesting.

On the other end of the scale of human affections, consider the unanimous judge-and-audience gush that resulted in the winner of “America’s Got Talent” being adorable 12-year old singer Grace VanderWaal.

“The next Taylor Swift” Simon Cowell dubbed her. (In his world, that’s a large compliment.) If you’ve ever watched the show, VanderWaal is the child whose cuteness is off the charts. She sings her own songs in an untutored voice and accompanies herself on the, yes, ukulele.

The catch to her lack of vocal training, is that however sweet and beguiling her little voice is (which is VERY), she’s easily subject to hoarseness from overuse. Some of that is from her age and only enforces her appeal but if you’re realistic, it augurs trouble. As does everything else about her at this age.

I hate to be a buzzkill but since the kid won on the strength of going viral practically from Day One, the father and grandfather in me has been operating in overdrive. She was already hoarse when she had to sing again on the final show of the season, before being anointed the “winner.”

What I refuse to forget for a second is that she’s 12 – and not a tough, burly, 12-going-on-30 either but a tender 12 from Suffern privilege. Her father is a marketing executive. The odds, then, of her being exploited – especially financially – are lower than they might otherwise be.

But we need to get real. Part of her winning is that she has to do a two-day gig in Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood. I can’t help wondering how she could fill a 15-minute stint on a Las Vegas stage.

She’s no Broadway belter. Her voice is small and so is her “act.” That’s what’s so lovely about it. Is she supposed to now develop Vegas “patter” between songs like Keely Smith at the Cal-Neva Lounge? How much scenic and orchestral grandeur is that sweet little voice and presence going to be asked to compete with?

Show contestants Tapeface (very funny) and the Clairvoyants also will be performing with her, which is also very much to the good. (The Clairvoyants seem the only ones who could easily fill a half hour of Vegas stage time.) The less this 12-year-old has to do on a Vegas stage the better.

It’s lovely that America anointed her the show’s “winner.” But the audience was voting for something they were seeing in their living rooms or on their tablets and smartphones. By all means, let her have the $1 million.

To the degree that a 12-year-old has to have a “career,” does anyone mind if I say she should never be forced again into big live performance gigs after doing the Vegas stuff? Certainly none that requires singing more than 20 minutes in front of an audience.

She belongs on TV shows and in recording studios (she has signed with Columbia) where she can be safe and taken care of and not thrown to the wolves. Even if those wolves are dressed up as screaming idolaters.


There are no comments - be the first to comment