My favorite moment from the new CBS reality series, “The American Baking Competition,” happens in the first episode. Baker/contestant Francine Bryson from Pickens, South Carolina finds out that Paul Hollywood is one of the judges and exclaims breathlessly: “He’s like the George Clooney of baking!”. Mr. Hollywood doesn’t look like Mr. Clooney but he does seem rather debonair as he’s judging the sogginess of the bottom of a pie and the thickness of a savory crust. Hollywood, who is a judge on the original British version of the show and the author of several cookbooks, critiques alongside fellow judge Marcela Valladolid. Host Jeff Foxworthy is there for family friendly comic relief.
If you like your cooking competition shows to be more of the cutthroat, nasty “MasterChef” variety, you might find “The American Baking Competition” too tame. The competitors are generally kind and supportive—their biographical montages are filled with happy scenes of them baking for their family and friends—while the judges’ critiques are polite and constructive. Unlike Joe Bastianich on “MasterChef,” whose harsh tone and comically icy stare feel like he’s constantly auditioning for the role of a cartoon villain, Paul and Marcela actually smile when they gently tell a baker their flavors didn’t work.
The judges don’t need to be mean because the contestants are their own worst critics. Baking is precise so it’s easy to figure out when something is a disaster. The competitors know when a pie hasn’t cooked through and when a custard hasn’t set properly so there’s often a lot of disappointment before the judges ever taste anything. Yet, there are a few contestants who are unrealistic about their skill set. Baker Carlo’s attempt at an Italian inspired tart was a train wreck of mismatched flavors that everyone but him could see coming. Nevertheless, Carlo remained enthusiastic and gracious in the face of failure.
While there’s a general pleasantness to the show, it’s not without tense moments. The clock, that enemy of all reality competition cooks, causes a lot of stress so rolling doll and icing a cake suddenly turns from a relaxing hobby in your kitchen to an anxious exercise in time management. While the format is simple, three challenges to crown “star baker” and eliminate someone, the stakes are high. The winner receives $250,000 and a cookbook deal. Watching the bakers crouching to stare at the ovens, willing their creations to cook is sort of silly. Then again, for a quarter of a million dollars, I’d be cooing to my pie through the oven door too.
As a big fan of sugar, I enjoy watching people create beautiful baked goods. But this show is really about people doing something they love with passion, enthusiasm and integrity. Plus, there’s a guy with the last name “Hollywood.” What’s not to like?
“The American Baking Competition” is on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EDT on CBS.
I’ve declared my love of property shows before in this column. Buying, selling, staging, renovating—I love it all. Then there’s the fantasy part of imagining how I would decorate a multimillion dollar property. What lighting would I need for the indoor pool? “Million Dollar Listing-New York” is all about the fantasy. Following three male property agents as they try to carve out their slice of New York City real estate, the show has all the best elements of house hunting with the added bonus of a cast who is made for reality TV. These boys are catty, hilarious and groomed to within an inch of their life.
It’s season two and the properties on offer are everything you’d expect from a show with “million dollar” in the title. There are townhouses with an asking price of $10 million and a home with so much marble, it’s simply dubbed the “marble house”–yours for around $17 million. While the clients work hard to show how nonplussed they are about the presence of the camera (all the while looking camera ready) and the homes range from opulent to a version of cozy/luxury, it’s the personalities of the agents that are the real reason to tune in.
Returning for season two are Ryan Serhant and Fredrik Eklund. They are joined by new cast member Luis Ortiz. Their career achievements, as written on the show’s website, are impressive but what’s more impressive is how entertaining they are. Ryan, who looks like he stepped off the set of a soap opera and in fact, did (according to his bio, he used to be on “As the World Turns”), hasn’t lost any of his dramatic acting skills. When super storm Sandy hits NYC, the show follows the agents as they deal with the loss of power. Ryan literally wanders the deserted streets trying to call people who don’t answer. The lesson, he tells us, is that he has sacrificed meaningful relationships for work. Maybe. Or maybe Ryan sees the situation as a great opportunity to give himself an emotional story arc. When he meets Luis, he calls him “the little guy” and later, tells the camera he’s not afraid of “Ricky Martin with the bouffant.” Voila! A reality TV rivalry is born.
To be fair, Luis is not tall and does have hair that challenges gravity. He is the energetic, super ambitious member of the group who is very proudly Latino. During an open house, he hires a Cuban band and makes sangria. He also tells the building’s doorman in Spanish to send Ryan’s clients (he has a viewing a few floors above, naturally) to his open house instead. For his super storm moment, he has a female neighbor over who he passionately kisses because, he says, every woman should experience a “Puerto Rican kiss” and then hands out coffee to the city workers who have restored power to his neighborhood.
Fredrik, a native of Sweden, is also fond of hair product and isn’t afraid to embrace a dramatic moment. He spends $40,000 to market the marble house but doesn’t sell it. The failure sends him into an identity crisis, part of which takes place as he’s being driven around in a luxury car. If he’s not the man who sells, then who is he? Fredrik spends the aftermath of super storm Sandy walking the city with his partner and two small dogs, in disbelief that his adopted home has come to a standstill. But, he soldiers on and with no lights and no shower for days, he opens marble house for a viewing. Take that Donald Trump.
“Million Dollar Listing-New York” is on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT on Bravo.
If you were planning on using the next few months to catch up on your delayed DVR viewing, you might want to reconsider. With more than 80 new and returning series coming to a TV near you from May to August, save your “to watch” list for another day. This summer is all about fresh programming from new seasons of old favorites to new shows wanting to become your favorite. One of the premieres vying for your attention is ABC drama “Mistresses,” which is about, you guessed it—women getting up to no good. Married women break their vows. Unmarried women sleep with married men. There’s betrayal, lies, guilt and maybe love. Based on a UK series, the show focuses on four friends who navigate their way through the emotional fallout inevitably caused by complicated sexual entanglements.
Alyssa Milano is Savannah Davis, a lawyer who is trying to juggle a marriage that is feeling the strain of infertility and a colleague who wants to be more than friends. Savannah is the sister of Josslyn Carver (Jes Macallan), a single real estate agent who doesn’t let a ring or a relationship stand in the way of a good time. Unapologetic about her behavior, she’s Samantha from “Sex and the City” but with less wit. Josslyn and Savannah are friends with April Malloy (Rochelle Aytes) a mother of a 10 year-old daughter whose husband died a few years ago. She’s getting strange phone calls that she thinks are a sign from the hereafter that she shouldn’t be dating yet. Rounding out the foursome is Karen Rhodes played by “Lost” alumni Yunjin Kim. Karen is a psychiatrist who gets herself into a tricky situation with a male patient who happens to be one of the founding partners of the law firm where Savannah works.
“Mistresses” tries to ground its approach to infidelity by injecting some realism into the characters’ situations. Their choices aren’t wildly irrational or completely implausible. You believe that what happens to them could happen to you or your best friend. Yet as much as you may like these ladies, their relatability doesn’t equal complexity. Savannah and company aren’t going to surprise you with deep thoughts but they do try and work through their issues by leaning on one another.
While the show’s depiction of supportive female friendships is refreshing, its attempt at dramatic tension needs work. The series shows enough skin to earn its title but lacks a good villain or juicy storyline to keep it interesting. It needs to feel a little more like a nighttime soap opera and a little less like a daytime talk show. Calling a series “Mistresses” practically demands weekly: “Oh no she didn’t!” moments. So far, most of these ladies’ situations lead to anxious expressions and heartfelt chats in someone’s tastefully decorated living room over a glass of wine. I’m not saying that I’m rooting for someone to throw a glass but a little passive aggressive spillage wouldn’t hurt.
“Mistresses” premieres June 3 at 10 p.m. EDT on ABC.
Ryan Lochte is a swimmer who won 11 medals at last year’s Olympics. I know this fact because it’s an outstanding news worthy achievement. Ryan Lochte owns a pair of sneakers with his first name on one sole and his last name on the other. He designed them, he says, so that everyone can “walk in his shoes.” He also says the following phrases repeatedly: “Go big or go home.” “Turn it up,” and “Jyeah.” You have to say the last one fast. It takes some practice. None of these facts are outstanding achievements worth knowing about yet I know them because Ryan has his own show on E!. It’s called: “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” and the answer changes depending on the weekly situations the producers set up for him.
E! is the network that made a few sisters with names that begin and end with the letter K famous so it’s not surprising that they would see the reality show potential in Lochte who at least has an actual talent. He also has great abs which are shown so much they deserve a mention in the end credits. His goofy charm means he will never be mistaken for a scholar athlete but the show’s producers know how to play up his “Aw shucks, I don’t know nothing about smart people stuff, I just swim” persona and Ryan happily goes along with the gimmick.
In fact, Ryan seems like a genuinely happy go lucky guy which is surprising considering how many versions of a sit-up he has to do at 7am everyday. His family is a big part of his life and they all make regular appearances on the show. His sisters are protective. His brother is his best friend. His mom is his biggest fan. He cries when talking about what their support meant to him when he got his medals at the Athens Olympics. It’s an honest moment but one that you could see from any famous person on any random Barbara Walter’s interview which is to say there’s nothing surprising here.
To be fair, Ryan’s show is not meant to surprise you. It’s meant to entertain you with his personality and it seems, his search for love. He wants to find a woman he can “share his heart with” so a big part of the show is watching him go on awkward dates. (Note to “The Bachelor” producers: Don’t take no for an answer!).
Will Ryan find romance? Will his dream of becoming a successful menswear designer come true? Will the E! producers realize the title of this show is really annoying? Only time will tell. For now, here’s my parting thought: Ryan is the kind of guy who not only says “Go big or go home” with absolute sincerity, he makes up his own words. There’s “lochterage” (the Lochte ‘entourage’) and “lochtenation” which has its own Twitter hashtag. If these amuse you, this show is for you.
“What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” is on Sundays at 10:30 p.m. EDT on E!
It’s easy to criticize “Wife Swap” for its extreme set-ups. For two weeks, two polar opposite families swap wives in the reality TV version of “the grass is always greener.” The first week, the women have to follow their new family’s rules. The second week, they can introduce their own. Frustration and resentment set in as the family who, in one episode, hunts for their nightly meal has to suddenly listen to a pageant mom from the suburbs who demands that they eat their dinner at a table and clean up the 20 pounds of laundry that has taken over their living room.
Meanwhile, the pageant mom’s house is taken over by a self-named “modern redneck” who makes her new “husband” wear camouflage and throws her temporary kids’ schedules out the window. It’s chaos versus order, disciplines versus no rules, city versus country, conservative versus liberal. The families are paired for maximum dramatic impact as they struggle to understand a way of life that is entirely opposite to their world view. It’s an artificial social experiment but it wouldn’t work any other way. How interesting would it be to watch two families whose only real difference is what time they put their kids to bed at night?
The point of “Wife Swap” is to use extremes to cause tension and arguments and the participants know the drill. This makes their outrage at having to follow new household rules disingenuous but also amusing. As a viewer, you know that the modern redneck’s husband is going to be unhappy folding the 20 pounds of laundry, what he considers to be “woman’s work,” but it’s still entertaining to see just how unhappy. Making him get a pedicure is practically scripted but watching him literally jump out of the chair every few minutes is pretty funny. It’s these real moments within the performance that make the show watchable.
The series, which has been on air since 2004, also relies on a good dose of self-righteousness from its participants. While they usually claim that their reason for taking part is to learn from other people’s parenting skills or household routines, they believe that their way is the correct way. The opening profiles of the two families plant this idea and it’s revisited when the families meet to talk about things after the two weeks end. But after the nasty comments about each family’s lifestyle fly back and forth across the table, tears flow, faults are admitted and lessons are learned. Yes, the modern redneck admits, she does need to take more pride in the cleanliness of her home. And yes, pageant mom declares, she does need to relax her kids’ daily schedules. They hug it out and go back to their lives, filled with appreciation for what they have and determination to change a few things. Then a two week update flashes across the screen. Modern redneck’s mountain of laundry hasn’t returned…yet and pageant mom’s kids are still putting in a 40 hour week of activities. I would say “so much for the reality of reality TV” but I know you know better.
“Wife Swap” is on Thursdays at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC.
“Fashion Star,” NBC’s reality show featuring competing clothing designers, is “Project Runway” with less creativity and more commerce. This show is all about the business of fashion. While “Runway” has its fair share of product placement, its weekly design challenges demand a certain level of inspiration from the competitors. This season they had to construct a garment after visiting the Guggenheim, design clothing using only plant and flower material and create prom dresses with different color packing tape. The results were usually beautiful examples of clothing as art. “Project Runway” isn’t always about fashion as fantasy, (there are more practical challenges), but its overall aesthetic is based upon creative expression. “Fashion Star,” on the other hand, is about creating a brand based on how buyers define the demands of the market.
On the show, designers are put into teams lead by mentors Jessica Simpson, John Varvatos and Nicole Richie. They are given design challenges with broad themes like “a night out” or “menswear” that are also influenced by what the buyers want (one wants to see a jumpsuit this week and one is looking for a great pair of shorts etc.). The designers present their finished work in a runway show to the audience, their mentors and most importantly, buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Express. The buyers’ decisions to make an offer or not appear on a large screen underneath where they are seated. They can compete with another buyer’s offer if they choose. Those designers who do not receive a bid are put up for elimination by the mentors and the buyers choose who to vote off. The overall winner receives a $3,000,000 order for collections in all three stores.
“Fashion Star” engages its audience with the practicalities of designing clothes as a business rather than a calling. The only question that matters is: Will the customers of Macy’s, Saks and Express want to wear this?The designers might try to stay true to their creative vision but really, they are designing clothes on demand. The mentors’ critiques offer little insight beyond questioning a color choice, zipper placement or silhouette while the big reveal is less about what they send down the runway and more about what number will magically appear on the screen as they anxiously await the buyers’ offers. It’s $150,000 from Macy’s! Now it’s $200,000 from Express! What that number actually means to the designer’s personal finances isn’t clear but for the audience it means that the winning garment will be available for purchase immediately after the broadcast.
The hook of “Fashion Star” isn’t fashion or creativity. It’s instant gratification. You can buy what the model is wearing. Right. Now. It’s a celebration of commercialism. I want to say this is a reason not to watch the show but fashion is a business and every designer wants to create a line that will sell. “Fashion Star” doesn’t pretend to be anything but a weekly enticement for you to spend money. According to its website, it won the award for “Best Social Commerce or Marketing Program” at the 2012 Social TV Awards. It’s proud to be a “marketing program” but aren’t all reality shows marketing something?
“Fashion Star” is on Fridays at 8 p.m. EDT on NBC.
“Duck Dynasty,” the A&E show about the Robertson family, founders of the successful Duck Commander business, made headlines recently when the singer Morrissey refused to appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” as his musical guest, in protest at the fact that Kimmel’s other guests that night were the Robertson’s. Morrissey, who is a vegan, called the Robertson’s “animal serial killers” because they like to hunt ducks–lots and lots of ducks. Morrissey isn’t a fan but after a few episodes, I might just be one.
While brothers Willie and Jase, father Phil and uncle Si are dedicated duck hunters, they are also part of a multimillion dollar family business. The show is filmed in their modest office, among other locations, where CEO Willie tries and fails to keep his relatives on task. The emphasis though, is on the family’s personal dynamics rather than the day to day realities of running their duck hunting empire. One of its main themes is just how little work this family seems to do.
But that’s all part of the fun and this show has funny moments thanks to the one-liners that Willie and Jase rattle off to the camera and to one another. When Willie’s high school reunion is coming up, Jase looks at a picture of a young clean-shaven Willie (all the Robertson men wear full beards in the Ziggy Top style) and says “You look like the sasquatch who ate this guy.” He then teases him about having gained weight and Willie’s wife says that she likes a man with “meat on his bones.” Later, Willie looks at the camera and says, quoting his wife: “I like a man with a little meat on his bones? That’s polite for you’re fat.” Jase for his part, has no time for high school reunions commenting: “If I haven’t contacted you in 20 years, there’s a reason for that.”
Willie’s attempt to lose weight is naturally, played for laughs. He tells us that “thankfully I still have a permit for these two guns” while flexing his biceps. He then mocks his wife’s invitation to join her for yoga with the line: “Yoga? That’s what men call stretching” but goes to a class wearing camouflage tights and then declares that he’s going to create his own pose called “dying fat man” as he struggles to finish the session. It’s a little like watching an improvisational situation comedy.
Jase takes his turn with t-shirt worthy slogans in an episode where the men go duck hunting. It’s the first day of the season and Willie opts for the comforts of an RV over camping in 80 degree heat. Jase is appalled and announces that he wants his brother’s “man card” back and he “needs to shave his face.”
Willie and Jace’s father Phil and Phil’s brother Si are sort of a comedy team in their own right with Phil playing the straight man while the women of “Duck Dynasty” are put in the wise caretaker role, smarter than their men but also the nurturing matriarchs who keep order.
Everyone on the show is in on the joke as they consciously play with the redneck stereotype but their unscripted remarks make it more enjoyable than most in the “here’s an interesting family” reality TV category. Each episode ends with Willie in voice over offering not so deep but sentimental thoughts like “It doesn’t matter how traditions evolve as long as they bring the family together.” It also doesn’t matter that in three seasons of the show the Roberston’s are seasoned performers. They have managed to do what many other reality TV families fail to—maintain enough sincerity to feel a little like the real thing.
“Duck Dynasty” is on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT on A&E.
How many serial killers can one TV viewer take? Quite a few it turns out. There’s Dexter Morgan on “Dexter,” Joe Carroll and his minions on “The Following” and now Hannibal Lecter. The famous cannibal killer from “Silence of the Lambs” makes his small screen debut on “Hannibal,” NBC’s addition to TV drama’s latest trend.
Stepping into the role of Dr. Lecter, a literary character so brilliantly brought to life by Anthony Hopkins on film, can’t be easy but Mads Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale”) does the part justice. Playing Lecter with a detached sophistication and a joyful flair for whipping up gourmet meals with proteins of questionable origins, Mikkelsen captures the character’s very unique form of crazy. What makes Lecter so horrifying is that he is such a high functioning psychopath. He is no cartoon, paint by the numbers killer. With an intriguing combination of aloofness and sensitivity, he makes you question how you understand evil. In “Hannibal,” we meet a Dr. Lecter who is comfortably in control of his dark nature and Will Graham, an FBI criminal profiler (Hugh Dancy) whose abilities threaten them both.
Will can empathize with anyone, making it possible for him to go deeply into the minds of the serial killers the FBI wants him to find. We learn about Will’s unique talents from his boss Dr. Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) but “Hannibal” takes it a step further by giving us a great visual language to understand Will’s gift. When Will encounters a crime, we watch a time jump, as the scene slowly rewinds itself in Will’s mind. He goes back to the beginning before the murder takes place. Suddenly, he is so deeply into the killer’s thought process that he becomes the killer, imagining himself in his or her place committing the crime. This ability takes an emotional toll on Will and when he starts investigating a serial killer whose crimes emotionally haunt him, he seeks Lecter’s help.
Part of the appeal of this story structure is that the audience is in on a secret that Will is meant to discover. Lecter, of course, is also a killer whose complexity threatens to destroy Will. It’s a cat and mouse game as he forms a relationship with Will while subtlety manipulating his fragile mental state. The question is, how long can he keep up the game?
“Hannibal” is not a series for the squeamish. The murder scenes can be gruesome but it’s less violent than you might expect. What’s more disturbing is the show’s psychological themes. Tracking down a lead with Will, Lecter doesn’t intervene when a woman’s throat is slashed in front of them. But then he goes with her to the hospital and falls asleep next to her bedside holding her hand. Is it compassion? Or a way to manipulate Will? Not knowing the answer is what makes this fascinating series worth watching.
“Hannibal” is on Thursdays at 10 p.m. EDT on NBC.
Has the nightly cover on the network news been good or bad? Answering this question is a matter of perspective. The goal of the news is to inform. Therefore, if the news informs you to a reliable degree, you likely will be pleased with the coverage. If a particular network news program is not delivering on your expectations, then you likely will switch the channel and watch one of the other broadcasts.
Also, whether or not the editorial slant of the news agrees with your opinions or sensibilities will also figure into liking or disliking a news broadcast. Those that might disagree with editorial opinions may have a less than favorable opinion of a news program than others.
While it is true answering whether or not the network news is good or bad is often based on opinion, there are other factors that must be examined, That factor would be the shrinking audience for the network news. In recent years, the audience for the news has shrunk. Many millions of people are turning their attention towards cable news and the internet for their information. Often, this is because of disfavor with the nightly new. The other valid reason is audiences find these alternative sources of information more modern in their presentation.
Norman Bates was a pretty scary character in 1960. For many viewers of “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock’s famous tale of the creepy motel owner with mother issues, taking a shower would never be the same again. The shower scene, with a shrieking Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a knife, the shadowy figure of an old woman and a soundtrack most of us immediately recognize, was an exercise in psychological terror. It was “Mother” who killed Marion. Or was it?
Norman’s relationship with his mother is the heart of “Psycho” and something that A&E’s new series “Bates Motel” wants to explore in present day. In this prequel, Norman (Freddie Highmore) is a teenager whose father has just died from a strange accident. His mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) decides that they need a fresh start so she moves them to a new town where she buys a house and motel in foreclosure. Things quickly go wrong. There’s a murder with a knife but in 2013 the Bates family is allowed to be a lot more violent on screen than they were in 1960. Like the shower scene that saw the end of poor Marion, the modern day murder that sets the show’s tone is all about rage but without the psychological terror that the original perfected.
Norma and Norman are unstable but so are the killers on any episode of “The Following.” What that series gets right that’s mostly missing from “Bates Motel” is the dark heart of its psychos. Farmiga does a great job of playing a passive aggressive controlling mother but her dark side just isn’t dark enough. The murder that kicks things off, while violent, is the end result of a violent act that is done to her. She is unhinged but she’s also a victim. Highmore’s young Norman is the quiet, studious type. He’s a little too connected to Norma but the creepiest thing about him is that he calls her “mother.”
Basically, Norma is a terrible parent whose overbearing actions will lead to Norman’s mental deterioration. Where’s the mystery that’s meant to keep viewers coming back week after week? So far, it’s in a few sub plots. Who’s the girl in chains? Is Norman’s brother good or bad? What secrets are the townspeople hiding? Will Norman’s first victim be his high school love interest? The show’s success or failure seems to rest on these answers rather than its central relationship.
Exploring how Norman comes to be a “psycho” is an interesting concept but it’s tricky to write a series betting on the idea that viewers want to know a famous character’s back story. For those who know the plot of the film, the show acts as a kind of reward. It promises to reveal the answer to the question: How does Norman lose his mind? It’s “Norman Bates: The Teen Years.” For those viewers who don’t care about the movie, the series has to be more than a character history. “Bates Motel” recognizes this and like any attempt at a re-mix it’s trying to create something new while staying true to its source material—in this case a creepy guy called Norman. The trick is not to lose what made the original so great in the first place.
“Bates Motel” is on Mondays at 10 p.m. EDT on A&E.