I've been diligently watching fall's reality-TV stalwarts, those shows that have managed to make it to double-digit seasons, and more than once I've asked: Could these shows get any duller? Am even I ready to throw in the reality-TV towel?
The formulas are etched in stone, few players seem fresh and I can repeat most of the filler in my sleep: "Six beautiful women stand before ... Want to know what you're playing for? ... A roadblock is a task that only one member of the team may perform ..."
But as a couple of these shows near the season's end, suddenly -- some life!
An exception is America Next Top Model (Season 11), which trudges on. Even the addition of a transgendered model didn't deliver, and the "exciting" final episodes in Amsterdam couldn't be duller. Even a boozy party didn't go anywhere. (And old-timers will remember Season 2, when a booze-up with a Euro boy caused some real Melrose Place-style bed-hopping drama.)
Honestly, I might care more if any one of these 10 earlier winners had ever become a "top model."
But Amazing Race (Season 13) found its groove when the wheels came off the teams where they so often do -- in the chaotic streets in a massive Indian city. It isn't just the colossally bad traffic that undoes players, but also the culture's charming quirk of politely agreeing, regardless. Frantic team member: "Is this the right way to such-and-such?" Local nods helpfully, and repeats team member's gesture. So it's an affirmative ... or is it?
Amusingly, natives in last week's confuse-a-rama country of Kazakhstan ignored most team member's requests for direction and information, leading the oh-so-hapless Arizona frat boys to liken them to "zombies."
Over on Survivor, despite the gorgeous West African setting, the drama has been more petty than compelling. The first half of the season (number 17!!) found one team constantly losing -- which makes for dreadful TV. But the last three episodes have seen a fake merge, a real merge, three blindsides at tribal council, a power shift to the "loser" tribe now seemingly in control of nerd-boy Kenny, and the creation of an impressive fake immunity idol. (I stand by my assertion that these hidden immunity idols don't deliver on their promise of game-changing, but a fake idol has a lot more potential for fun.)
Also in Survivor's wind-down favor: The most obnoxious players -- Randy and Corinne -- are still on board and mad as wet hens.
And just in time for the winter bunking-down days is Top Chef: New York which started up last week on Bravo. Last season, set in Chicago, failed to ignite much drama -- though I still love the challenges and dream of eating the food. It's fingers-crossed for me and the new season.
The opening was a quick gut-punch as the contestants lined up literally off the boat for a quick-fire challenge that would send one chef home pronto. And, it was humiliating -- especially since the rounds 1 and 2 of the challenge involved basic knife skills and apples.
The main challenge was a good use of the city, and the competing chefs' on-the-fly skills, as each had to come up with an inventive dish rooted in the cuisine of one of NYC's ethnic neighborhoods (though the producers clearly did some fudging of NYC reality to shoehorn in several cuisines – "Little India"?).
My early favorite among the contestants is the little tattooed guy from Hawaii, former-dishwasher Gene. Dude got freaky-lucky, making what he thought was a Mediterranean dish to cover his utter lack of knowledge of Indian cuisine (sure, makes no sense), and through some miracle of culinary alchemy wowing Padma with a "perfect" Indian curds-and-rice side dish.
In reality shows, contestants can't necessarily win solely on luck, but unlike hidden immunity idols, luck can absolutely help one's progress. Now, if only the viewers can luck out on reality-TV getting a little mojo back..