Humiliation is boss on new series

Comedian to take charge on MTV as potential assistants apply for the job


July 12, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Innocence, ambition and humiliation - constant humiliation. That's the formula for The Assistant, a new reality TV series that MTV is promoting as a parody of the genre itself.

As satire, The Assistant, which features 12 twentysomethings competing for a job as personal assistant to comedian Andy Dick, is not very funny. Its story is too obvious, and its targets too easy.

The show is nevertheless darkly intriguing, I'm ashamed to admit. It blatantly debases the earnest contestants and the ways in which they allow themselves to be humiliated in hopes of being the lucky winner of a job as an assistant at a Hollywood production company. How and when did watching people grovel for an entry-level job become prime-time entertainment?

Clearly the specific target of the parody is NBC's The Apprentice, this year's biggest new reality TV hit. That show featured 12 contestants vying to become an apprentice to real estate mogul Donald Trump. Being Trump's apprentice included a $250,000-a-year job as head of one his companies.

Part of the joke is the size of the prize and the stature of the show's star. Dick is best known as a geeky, offbeat, supporting player in marginal network sitcoms such as Less Than Perfect and NewsRadio.

Humiliation, of course, was an essential ingredient of The Apprentice. Each week, a contestant would be called to Trump's TV boardroom to be eliminated by the big man himself. After explaining the contestant's shortcomings, Trump would point a finger at them and repeat the words, "You're fired."

In The Assistant, humiliation becomes debasement. The show continually exploits the imbalance of power between applicant and employer - as Dick calls the 12 contestants vulgar, demeaning names and addresses them in coarse ways. He regularly uses a crude, sexist word that begins with "b" to describe them - always preceded by the word "my" to emphasize their subjugation. With each verbal insult, the camera cuts to the face of one or more applicants to show their hurt reaction. One contestant cries, and the camera can't get enough of her tears.

In The Apprentice, the challenges taken on by the contestants generally required some business skills; in The Assistant, the tasks performed are only meant to demean. One young woman uses scissors to cut the grass around Dick's pool. Can scrubbing his toilet with a toothbrush be far behind? Maybe next week, if we are lucky.

The Assistant does mock other reality TV shows. As the 12 arrive at Dick's mansion, they are met by Dick and a butler and maid - much like the contestants on Fox TV's Joe Millionaire. (But in the new show, the butler is a crank and drunk.) At the end of tonight's episode, Dick hands out roses as part of the elimination ceremony - just as it is done on ABC's The Bachelor.

That's the part that's obvious, easy and witless. There's nothing new about parodying reality TV shows. From Reno 911 (Comedy Central), which poked fun at Cops (Fox), to USA Superstar (WB) taking on American Idol (Fox), it's been done. The newest of these parodies, Crossballs (Comedy Central), which mocks the talking heads on cable news talk shows, debuted last week.

The uglier aspect of The Assistant - the part that invites us to wallow in the cruel appeal of most reality TV shows - provokes the way satire is supposed to provoke. It's hard to watch the humiliation of these contestants and not feel a little uneasy about watching.

Even during the Great Depression - as screwy as pop culture got with people sitting on flagpoles for weeks to win a few dollars - we never confused the struggle of others to find work with our amusement.

The Assistant

When: Tonight at 10:30

Where: MTV

In brief: A parody of reality TV and humiliation as entertainment

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