March 20, 2005

Two Reality Shows Worth Watching -- The Contender and Intervention

The ratings are a huge disappointment, but the success of The Apprentice and Survivor notwithstanding, Mark Burnett's best show is The Contender (Sundays at 8:00 P.M.). I don't think there's anything NBC can do to convince most folks to watch a show centered around boxing, especially one that ends with a brutal match.

And I won't pretend that the show doesn't dip its toes in every cliche about boxing and boxers. Every losing boxer shows "heart" and parrots bromides stolen from other sports figures.

But it is fascinating watching the boxers live communally and interact. While the contestants on Burnett's other shows blend together, the personalities of the boxers are vivid. And they are sympathetic. Unlike the coddled would-be apprentices, they are appreciative of their opportunity -- a reality show without whining is possible!

The boxing scenes are edited brilliantly. The Contender has huge advantages over live broadcasts. Boring stretches of boxing? Eliminate them. How should we feel about what is happening in the ring? Show a reaction show of the other boxers or family members (whether or not the reaction was to the moment we just saw). What did we just see? Go to a slow-mo immediately.

On most competitive reality shows, folks are eliminated if they are too strong or too annoying. The Contender is a meritocracy. Win the match and you're in; lose and you're out.

Ultimately, though, the appeal of The Contender is learning about a group of folks who aren't often depicted on television. I don't care about boxing, but I care about the boxers.

The brutality on Intervention (Sunday nights at 9:00 P.M. on A&E) is much more harrowing. Addicts of various types agree to particpate in a documentary about their problems. What they don't know is that they will soon face an intervention with friends and family.

The addicts in Intervention are ruthless in analyzing their own behavior. The shame and self-loathing of the addicts are harder to withstand than the scenes of shooting up or self-mutiliation.

The revelation to me is is in the interventions themselves. In dramatic depictions, the participants are brutal and the addicts deeply resistant. The real interventionists are blandly calm, the families and friends tentative and loving, and the addicts less resistant and more passive than usually depicted (of course, a group of addicts who have agreed to be featured in a documentary about their personal problems might not be a random sample).

The show is too graphic for children but I can't think of better propoaganda against addiction than the words and actions of the addicts.