A Curdled Summer of Reality TV

They’ve had a good run, but are gay men finally losing some ground as America’s default arbiters of personal style?

Two of this season’s most compelling reality shows feature loser heterosexual men being rehabilitated not by their swishy brethren, as has become customary, but by those old high-school nemeses: popular girls. Actually, it’s three if you count UPN’s irresistibly awful Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, about the luscious singer and her bedraggled mole rat of a husband.

The Chaotic season finale aired to an underwhelming 2.1 million on June 14, but there’s still time for you to become engrossed in the unapologetic summery superficiality of VH1’s Kept, which relates the fashion model Jerry Hall’s search for a new boy toy, and the WB’s Beauty and the Geek, co-produced but mercifully otherwise unvisited by Demi Moore’s yahoo boyfriend, Ashton Kutcher. (Theory: Reality-TV shows go down more easily when they’re dispensed by these marginal channels than by the big networks, which really should be devoting their time to news specials about Iraq and moving hour-long dramas.)

The programs are not innovative; they rely heavily on competition, humiliation and makeovers, an essential formula of the genre that is starting to seem as quaint as sitcoms’ coffee shops and comfy couches.

In the case of Kept, it’s not immediately clear who is suffering more humiliation, the circus animals or the ring mistress. One could be forgiven an initial distress at the news that Jerry Hall had joined Kirstie Alley, Farrah Fawcett and other ladies d’un certain age, whom the cruel might call washed-up has-beens, at play in the fields of “reality.” Not Jerry Hall!? The glam, super-cool, six-foot Texan who snared Mick Jagger for two decades? Who partied at Studio 54 and in Mustique? Doesn’t she have anything better to do with her time?

Apparently not. Looking fit on the eve of her 49th birthday, which is this July 2, still a palomino of a woman with her long face and oft-tossed golden mane, Ms. Hall (“the international supermodel and legendary jet-setter,” as the Robin Leach–like introductory voiceover puts it) is living well on her reported $50 million divorce settlement in England, where her Texas twang has morphed into an odd Northumberland burr, though a down-home “y’all” still occasionally slips out. Bored (or boarrrrred) with her luxurious lifestyle, she imports a dozen young men from the States-mostly muscled if uncouth pretty boys, with a geek and a Puck thrown in for variety-to compete for the honor of doing her every bidding; the winner, it is implied but not promised, will become her gigolo, for a salary of at least $100,000.

Many of these suitors, alas, seem more motivated by this cash prize than by loin-stirrings for the leggy middle-aged beauty (one is a Starbucks barista who still lives with his parents); some even appear not to understand completely who she is or why she is famous. Which suits Jerry just fine; indeed, after one fellow composes a tribute to her history with Mick, he is dismissed as a potential “stalker” and quickly sent home. Warmly encircled by furs and friends-other members of the “rock ‘n’ roll royalty,” including the girlfriends of Bob Geldof and Pete Townshend-Ms. Hall subjects these would-be “kept” men to a battery of tests, most of which involve elaborate costume changes: greasing themselves up in goose fat and swimming across the grimy Thames; dressing up in ludicrous Vivienne Westwood ensembles and parading down a runway (“If I’m going to wear a skirt, I’m gonna work it,” shrugs Anwar, a zoo keeper); dropping their drawers for a nude painting session; and, in the episode that airs Thursday, June 23, donning 18th-century wigs and knee breeches for a kind of “Rock Me, Amadeus” freestyle dance contest.

All the while, Milady sits, applauds and brays “Fabulous! Fabulous!” or simply “Bravo!” before foisting the unpleasant task of elimination on a bespectacled minion named Katy and a couple of massive, impassive African-American security guards.

The concept of Beauty and the Geek is a bit more complex. It’s framed as a “social experiment” that pairs seven irredeemable nerds-most of whom admit to extreme sexual inexperience-with seven ditsy but socially apt young women: an assistant Boy Scout master and a beer spokesmodel, that kind of thing. An N.B.A. dancer and the president of the Dukes of Hazzard fan club. The men are supposed to impart some substance and gravitas to the ladies in return for learning how to dress hiply and acquire a chick’s “digits.” The ludicrously mismatched couples are placed in tight living quarters, then assigned to complementary activities: He’ll teach her how to fix cars, and she’ll teach him how to give a massage, because both activities involve some kind of oil. (High as their I.Q.’s may be, the nerds are not above the now-almost-universal-though-maddeningly-incorrect substitution of “laying” for “lying,” which is all over TV now.) Afterward, they are publicly tested on their prowess. The winners of the free-for-all choose two couples to be sent to an “elimination” room, where a milquetoast host asks them a series of questions about their new skills; those with the fewest points are sent packing.

When you throw swirling hormones under the hot klieg lights like this, of course hanky-panky will rapidly ensue; a blonde who holds down the job of “life-sized Barbie model” is shocked to find herself attracted to a bank-teller-slash-Mensa-member (“I never thought I would fall for a nerd,” she exclaims, echoing a 1984 movie starring a pre- E.R. Anthony Edwards; later, when threatened with elimination, tears pour down her cheeks at the thought of them being separated). Meanwhile, a not-so-naïve neurology student cannily winds up straddling the buttocks of a beer spokesmodel, easing his hands under her camisole as she chatters flirtatiously to him in Spanish. This kind of unscripted bonding is much more interesting than watching the boys struggle through a staged “romantic dinner” or the girls try to build miniature chemically propelled rockets and recall who was President when the Berlin Wall fell. “I’ve realized from being here that I am kind of shallow,” hiccups one in her exit interview.

The breakout star of the show is undoubtedly Richard, a 21-year-old Brandeis student with a double major in history and Spanish, a bug-like body and a hyperkinetic energy that alternately amuses and infuriates everyone else staying in the mansion. A dork of the old school (his official biography states that he’s looking for a girl with Marilyn Monroe’s looks and Albert Einstein’s brains), Richard hams mercilessly for the camera, wearing a sandwich board announcing that he wants to “form an alliance,” smearing his nose with mud to “brown-nose” a couple in the lead, complaining about the food as if he’s Gramps at a Catskills resort. Of course, the men-like the Kept candidates-will all grudgingly submit to haircuts and wardrobe revamps before they’re through (sweat forming on sorority girl Mindi’s upper lip as she calculates the bill), shedding their spectacles and their inhibitions. “If I gotta wear jeans to be fawned over by beautiful women,” Richard dryly declares in the June 22 episode, “I’ll wear the jeans.” He’s fabulous! Fabulous!

A Curdled Summer of Reality TV