Oh, what some will do for love or money

Preview: Reality TV slips down another notch with UPN's `Chains of Love.'

April 17, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Last night, after witnessing the arrival of the game show host as mistress of verbal humiliation in the person of Anne Robinson on NBC's "Weakest Link," you might think reality TV had finally touched bottom. But I'm here to greet you with the glorious news that the debasement deepens tonight with the debut of "Chains of Love" on UPN. With four contestants and only $10,000 in prize money each week, never have so many humiliated themselves for so little.

"Chains of Love"- the show in which a group of men and women are chained together for several days until the "picker" selects one of the four members of the opposite gender as someone with whom he or she wants to have a "relationship"- is the reality series that NBC announced and then ditched once it saw what it had actually committed to broadcast. As for UPN, once you're on the road of "WWF Smackdown!" what face is there left to save?

On the day that the first "Survivor" aired last summer, I argued in these pages that much of the appeal of such shows came from seeing the contestants degraded, that the reality genre spoke to a meanness in us and the culture. But I never thought the networks would get this obvious about holding people up for ridicule and abuse.

The "picker" in tonight's premiere of "Chains" is Andy, a 31-year-old Hollywood stunt man originally from Rockville. Andy is divorced, and, about four minutes into the show, you'll see why: He's a jerk. You'll wonder why any woman ever married him in the first place.

His four "chain mates," in the language of the UPN press release, are: Kerstin, a 23-year-old dancer-athlete-bartender; Amy, a 25-year- old sales representative; Vanessa, 28, a recruiter for a private school; and Nicki, 28, a singer-entertainer-trainer. (The hyphenated job descriptions are courtesy of UPN.)

After an hour, I still couldn't tell them apart, except for Nicki, the bisexual body-builder. She had short hair and was buff - one would presume from the training, not the entertaining part of her resume. Judging from the number of "trainers" on these reality series, there must be at least three of them for every man, woman and child in the country.

The job of the chain mates is to kiss up to Andy, with the goal of being picked as the one with whom he wants to have a relationship. When the "picker" is this big a self-absorbed jerk and the chain mates are this pathetic as they try to out-perform each other for his approval, it makes "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" almost seem like the good old days of taste and decorum.

The five spend four days in a Hugh-Hefner-like Playboy mansion chained together at ankles and wrists. They sleep together, eat together, stand in the swimming pool and drink wine together. The show is a little vague about bathroom breaks. But, from the admission that the five are unchained in the morning so that they can take separate showers, it appears that there also are bathroom breaks.

Periodically during the four days, a menacing guy in a black suit and sunglasses appears, which signals that Andy has to dump one of the chain gang. She's unshackled and driven away in a black SUV with tinted windows - "the disappeared." With each unshackling, Andy tells the chain mate what's wrong with her, and decides how much of the $10,000 prize money she'll receive.

Two of the four women leave in tears at what he says - or maybe it's the value he determines for each of the two - less than $1,000. It's the worst aspects of divorce, boiled down to ugly little made-for-TV moments.

Typical of the producers' stupidity is the fact that the man in the suit is a person of color; associating menace with race this way is absolutely inexcusable. The producers, by the way, are the same folks who brought us "Big Brother" last summer on CBS.

The only good thing I can say about "Chains of Love" is that UPN has committed to six episodes - three with male pickers, and three with female selectors. Maybe, if we keep reminding ourselves that shows like "Weakest Link" and "Chains of Love" are only midseason tryouts, after a few weeks, they'll go away and never come back.

Sure, and maybe the next big hit reality series will feature people competing to see who can be the nicest, most honest, civil and caring member of the group.

New show

What: "Chains of Love"

When: Tonight at 8

Where: WUTB (Channel 24)

In brief: Never have so many debased themselves for so little.

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