A former English teacher of mine used to say John Grisham novels were like Doritos. Even though they make you fat and have no nutritional value, once you open the bag, you keep eating, one after the next. Certain reality shows are a lot like that. Fox's latest offering, Playing It Straight, is the latest specimen. The show follows a na´ve Wisconsin girl, the beautiful Jackie, who's whisked away to a Nevada ranch, where she's marooned with 14 handsome suitors. The cruel twist du jour is that not all of the hunks are straight. If she picks the "right" guy, presumably one who wouldn't mind bedding down with her for the evening, she and the lucky hetero get to split $1 million. If she falls for a gay guy, each of whom is trying desperately to pass, the happy homo ends up with all the loot.
Laughably predictable and patently absurd, Playing It Straight is a show this critic wanted to hate -- make that: needed to hate -- to have any shred of self respect left at all. Yet, as I watched the first episode, I knew I was hooked. Like Doritos, there's no such thing as just one.
the men of "Playing It Straight"
Of course most of the fun in Playing It Straight is the guessing game. Like Jackie, I found myself scrutinizing the bachelors and their every move as if it were dialogue on The West Wing or the subtle moods evoked on Six Feet Under. I sat breathless, legs curled up under me, fists clenched, as Jackie eliminated her suitors, one by one, and each loser revealed whether his orientation. No freaking way! Are you fucking kidding me?
After the first hour, I was totally guilt-ridden. This is why American television is so bad, I told myself, because people like me (yes, me!) watch this crap. That drives ratings, which drives the advertisers, which drives the creative process. Playing It Straight isn't the problem. I'm the problem.
But there's a reason we watch. It's mindless and stupid, a complete waste of time, but that didn't stop me and a couple of friends from talking about it last Friday night at the bar. Who got kicked off? Which one's gay? (Open mouth, insert Doritos, munch, munch.)
We dissected and analyzed, laughing and poking fun. Who on earth are these people and what kind of freak goes on a show like this? And then it hit me: Who needs scripted comedies when there's reality TV?
Frankly, the particulars are unimportant because it's the dialogue that will simply slay you. Consider actual dialogue from Playing It Straight:
"I wanted to be able to say I didn't have a strategy. I wanted just to come here and truly be myself, " says one suitor.
From another: "What is it that's really driving her: Is it the money? Or does she genuinely want to meet someone to fall in love with? "
And my personal favorite from Jackie herself: "There are people in this group that are deceiving me and obviously, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts so bad, you know, because it's not like they're in it for the love. I mean, they're gay. "
Of course, the joke's ultimately on us viewers. Reality TV producers count on us to buy into this garbage -- if not to believe it then certainly to let it go down like noxious junk food. How else to get past this disclaimer at the top of the show? "Attention viewers! The male contestants in this program may be lying or misrepresenting themselves at all times. "
In the end, you promise yourself that this is it. Last time, last one. But we know it's only going get much worse. Much, much worse. We're going to hit the bottom of the bag. Count on it.