Saturday, March 27, 2004

Playing With It

I've been almost as negligent about keeping up with the new spring shows as I have about blogging, and it's time to start fixing both those things.

So can we talk for a minute about the genius that is Playing It Straight?

Back when Boy Meets Boy ended, I proposed an idea for the sequel on the Television Without Pity forums. (The powers that be over there seem to have done away with the BMB thread, so you'll just have to take my word for it that I came up with this months ago.) I suggested that they do the show again, and tell all the participants that it was the same show as season one, with straight guys mixed in with the gay suitors. The twist this time would be that no one is actually straight. It would be fascinating to see how the Gaychelor dealt with that, what criteria he used to eliminate people, how the knowledge that they were "infiltrated" would affect the way the other competitors interacted with each other.

With Playing it Straight, Fox (natch) has basically given us that show. For any of you who may not know, PiS is a cruel joke masquerading as a dating show (in other words, a typical season on Fox). One woman and 14 men arrive on a secluded ranch for Bachelorette-style high jinx. Only what the woman and half of the men don't know is that some of the guys (cue dramatic music and badly-edited reaction shots here) are gay. The last man standing gets a million dollars at the end if he's gay, or splits it with the woman if he's straight. I have to wonder what the casting process for this was like. Did they ask for some sort of proof of orientation?

What makes this show a little different is that once they arrived at the ranch, everyone was let in on the secret. I thought this would make things less fun, but it's actually kind of refreshing. For one thing, after the initial shock, most of the cruelty is gone. Jackie knows she's being lied to, so she's not going to let herself get all attached to one of the guys only to have him break her heart for a million dollars. She sometimes comes off as really dumb in her interviews, but she's also really willing to play the game. Some contestants would say "I just really hope I can figure out which guys are straight so I can still find my true love like I'd planned." Nope, she wants that 500 grand.

One of my fears about the show was that the gay guys would all come off as villains, deceiving the "poor, innocent girl" for money. Never mind that deception has become the backbone of reality television. But since everyone's in on it, it all seems strangely...fun? It's also to the producers' credit that they're avoiding any editing that would make the gay guys look evil, and that they cast some straight guys who are just naturally tremendous assholes. Last night, one of the guys, a singer-songwriter who Boy, Jackie and I all think is straight, said in an interview, "Yeah, she's nice and pretty and all, but I'm not really looking for love. I just want that money and some exposure for my music." Since the gay guys are trying to deceive the audience too, I don't think one of them would risk tipping his hand like that. There was something inspirational about such honest fame whoring.

The honesty about the lying (an odd combination, I know), also gives us a much truer "social experiment" than the one the producers of BMB used to help them sleep at night. In their interviews, everyone obsesses over who the gay guys might be, and several of the guys have even chastised themselves for having accidentally shown effeminate qualities in front of Jackie. I'm fascinated by what these people thinks makes someone appear gay or straight, even in this day and age of metrosexuals and Ryan Seacrest. And even while talking directly to a camera, they all seem to have forgotten that they're on TV, and the show has been cast by a very savvy team of professionals. Two of the more "obviously" queer guys -- both skinny and soft-spoken with good hair -- were eliminated the first week, and of course turned out to be straight. Also in the first episode was much controversy of the fact that one of the guys had a hairdryer with him. Uh-oh! Red flag! But never mind how femme it may be, the guy has short, straight hair in a gelled spiky 'do -- all I wanted to know was why he needed a hairdryer at all!

Though a lot of them are coming off as very "country," it's hard to tell how naïve the guys really are, because the gay ones have to keep up their charades in their interviews. But they seem to be even more thrown by all this than Jackie. When guys are eliminated and we learn their true orientations, the other guys are frequently shocked that their suspicions (either way) were wrong, and the subsequent questioning of what a gay guy or a straight guy is supposed to look and sound like seems extremely genuine. (Jackie's naivety is far more annoying, as in one breath she'll profess to have her game face on, and in the next say things like, "I'm sure he's straight because he was flirting with me," or "He looked me right in the eye and told me he was straight so I believe him." Honey, there's a million bucks on the line, and you know half the guys are lying to get it, you need more evidence than that!)

This also illustrates how well the show has been cast, and for me it's less about what I think about stereotypes than it is about what I think about reality shows. The "prettiest" boy on the show (he of the hairdryer incident) must be straight because he's so "obviously" gay. Same with the personal trainer and the baby-faced bartender. All they're missing is a hairdresser and an interior designer...and a construction worker and an Indian. The butchest guy is probably queer. I'm more interested in how reality TV gets made than I am in how it all turns out. And the fact that if they were really smart the obvious guys would be what they appear, because they know the audience is going to second- and third-guess everything.

But my favorite thing about PiS is the way they refuse to take themselves seriously. From the Kathy Griffin wannabe host whose announcement of the secret to Jackie at dinner wouldn't have been out of place on Joe Schmo, to the fact that the ranch is named Sizzling Saddles. The show opens with a warning -- not a disclaimer, a warning, complete with flashing lights and sirens -- that some of the guys are lying even in their interviews. They love to accompany voiceovers of the various contestants speculating about who's on which team with shots of the guys hugging, or hot-tubbing, or bending over. Lots of bending over. Last night there was, I kid you not, a slow-motion hot-dog-eating montage. During a one-on-one date, they blatantly manufactured an eye-roll for Jackie. They took a shot of her moving her eyes to one side, then ran it backwards, like those cats who do double-takes in litter commercials. The cheesy dramatic music plays if someone spills a glass of water, and a good third of the episode is recap and another third is in slow motion. You just get the sense that they're in on the joke. It's really kind of the final frontier for these shows. We've had ultra-serious (even when it didn't deserve to be), and we've had parodies, now we have a show with real stakes but chock-full of irony.

Mostly, I guess, I just think about how poorly I'd do at Sizzling Saddles. They ride horses all the time. Few things will turn me nellier than getting me anywhere near a horse, let alone making me ride one! Ow and ew.

Tomorrow: Wonderfalls and Kingdom Hospital