You gotta love Bravo’s reality programming. Half of the programs are based on rich, spoiled brats doing obnoxious, bratty things (such as the “Real Housewives” clones and “The Millionaire Matchmaker“). But the other half — and, I would argue, the far more successful and “legitimate” reality TV shows — involve bratty yet talented individuals involved in high-stakes competitions. The genius behind these shows is that they merge beautiful things (high fashion garments or gourmet cooking) with the drama that invariably results when you mix money, ego, and stress.
One of the most influential reality TV shows that nailed this formula is Tyra Banks’s “America’s Next Top Model,” on The CW (formerly UPN). What “ANTM” understood is that while we Americans love the drama of MTV’s “The Real World,” we’ll tolerate it a whole lot more if you give us a reprieve from the constant bickering with photos of pretty girls in crazy high fashion shoots. Once we saw how beautiful and breathtaking the photos were, the juxtaposition of these teenage girls bickering over showers, food, and who has the fiercest catwalk is all the more enjoyable.
“ANTM” also has the added bonus of being a cult. No, really. If you watch the show as much as I do (and God help you if you do), you’ll notice the incredible transformation that takes place, season after season, as Tyra Banks systematically reduces each unique teenage girl into a walking, talking animatronic puppet. By the end, the last two girls standing start to look alike, dress alike, and even talk alike. They are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and the girl that wins is the one that can best emulate a perfect walking clothes hanger (but a fierce clothes hanger, ladies).
Not to be outdone by the insidious Tyra Banks, Bravo has produced some of the most watched of the competition reality shows, “Project Runway” and “Top Chef” being the two big dogs. In an attempt to clone their cash cows, they tried to apply the same competition formula to other genres, with mixed results. They tried to tread on Tyra’s heels with “Make Me a Supermodel,” but it never really achieved the same blend of beauty and cattiness as “ANTM.” They attempted to focus on interior design with “Top Design” and hairstylists with “Shear Genius.” But none of these shows have been as successful as “Top Chef” or “Project Runway.” Part of the reason for this, I believe, is the ability of both “Project Runway” and “Top Chef” to cash in on the expert-celebrity phenomenon: Finding celebrity fashion designers and models is easy, and thanks to shows like “Top Chef” and Food Network’s programming, there are now mainstream celebrity chefs. It is much more difficult to find a mainstream celebrity hair stylist or interior designer, and just telling the audience that this person is, in fact, a noted stylist only works if we have come to accept the notion of stylist-as-celebrity.
Anyway, I was watching the latest season of “Top Chef,” which happens to be set in DC, where I spent three years of my life being a poor, unsuccessful writer and adjunct. I was enjoying watching the chefs separate themselves into the classically trained, talented chefs and the “alternative” chefs who don’t stand a chance in the competition but honestly believe that they do. Immediately, the egos began to assert themselves — including Angelo, who declared, over and over again, that he had no real competition on this show. I was sad to see my favorite chef immediately voted off: John, the crazy-eyed, aging hippy chef, complete with white-dude dreadlocks tied back with a bandana, who made a maple-flavored dessert while everyone else was making steak.
But then, as the credits were rolling, the next show came on: “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” I was confused, nervous, and overjoyed: Here was another reality TV show from Bravo, and this one was about art. It’s interesting that nobody has tried to create a competition reality TV show about art before; it is, after all, the most visual medium. Top Chef loses some its power since we can’t actually taste what the chefs make; we simply have to rely on the judges to use colorful language to describe what they’re just consumed. But here was a reality TV show about artists, where we as viewers would lose a lot less of the original experience.
Automatically, I was expecting some insane shit to be going on here. Part of what makes these shows so compelling is that you are not only getting bitchy, ego-driven drama and beautiful, talented objects to ogle, but you are also ostensibly getting a front seat into the creative process. Want to know what sets apart a good chef from a great chef or a mediocre designer from Gucci? Well, just tune in. So I expected to see some crazy art, listen to some pretentious, esoteric discussions about art, and get a sneak peek into the artistic process of a certified loon.
Well, I was partly right. As with most of these reality TV shows, there are a few talented people, a few nut jobs, and a sea of mediocre individuals trying desperately to hold on week after week. Now, unfortunately, I had somehow missed the first episode of “Work of Art” (with Sarah Jessica Parker, no less!), so I had to settle for episode two. But the talented guy/nutjob of “Work of Art” made himself known almost immediately: A loveable, ego-driven flake named Miles. Now, to be honest, Miles is kind of a prick. He knows he’s a talented mofo, and he has no qualms about letting everybody know that what he is making right now is some serious art. But he is also adorable; whenever he talks, I just want to ruffle his hair.
Of course, he’s also the mayor of Crazy Town.
In the episode I watched, all the artists had to take junk from an electronics graveyard and make some art. Miles gravely explained that he had been having trouble sleeping because his OCD was acting up again, and he gasped and groaned and then curled up in a corner while everyone else sized up the hardware.
Miles then took surreptitious naps throughout the rest of the episode at the most inopportune times, much to the chagrin of the rest of the contestants, who could somehow tell that his crazy was going to overpower their air time. Finally, while everyone else made art that spoke to our insatiable consumption and subsequent disposal of electronics, Miles made a bed. A very uncomfortable bed that he titled “The Worst Place to Sleep.” And then, during the “judging,” which takes place at a makeshift art gallery, Miles proceeded to sleep on his uncomfortable bed.
The rest of the contestants viewed this so-dubbed “performance art” with a mixture of disbelief, awe, or catty name-calling. And as a special bonus, Miles continued this performance piece with another entitled “The Heart of a Douchebag Reality TV Show,” wherein he joined the judges in slamming another contestant’s work, calling it “unbearably boring.” (Actually, he never said that part was performance art or gave it a title, but that’s how I like to imagine it.)
All of this brings me back to my earlier point: We watch these shows not just for the bitchy name-calling or the pretty pieces of art, but also for a glimpse into the artistic process. And the only thing I’ve glimpsed about the artistic process in all of these shows is that it takes a good deal of training, talent, and total and complete narcissism. In fact, you may not need the first two as long as you have an unquestionable belief that your experience of the world is the only truly worthwhile experience. Miles has shown me that the way to become a true artist is to embrace all of my weird eccentricities — to nourish them, even — so that when I’m handed a broken-down television set, I will make a bed, because I’ve been having trouble sleeping.
That’s probably not the only prerequisite, but what these shows also tell us is that true geniuses can never offer much insight into the complex workings of their own brains. It usually translates into “Ooh, look! Pretty!” In quasi-intelligent artist-talk, this would come out as: “I was inspired by the harsh geometric patterns of the New York City skyline, and I wanted to translate that vision into an evening dress.” But for Miles the Lovable Douchebag, this simply translates into: “I was having trouble sleeping because of my OCD, so I thought of the worst place to possibly sleep. And then I made a bed. And then I slept in it.”
Bless you, Miles. And to be a true writer, just as you are a true artist, I will end this article with the wisdom and insight you have now shown me: Melissa is a crazy wicked writer who will, in the near future, publish numerous best-selling books of the caliber of Ulysses and Infinite Jest. Look out, world!