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Not Here to Make Friends: Competing on Reality TV

by Zan Romanoff

July 25, 2013 | 3:24 pm

There are all kinds of careers in reality television. Last night's Top Chef Masters, which pits established chefs against one another in a bid to win money for their favorite charities, saw the return of a runner-up from the original Top Chef, Las Vegas' second place finisher Bryan Voltaggio. Bryan is a married father of two who owns a successful restaurant in Maryland; his return to televised cooking reads as a smart, genial publicity bid, an effort to get his restaurant's name out there and prove that, though he lost to his brother in his season's finale, he's still a world-class chef. 

Top Chef Masters is somewhere between pleasant and boring to watch; there's nothing but professional pride at stake, which mean the losses are cringier (how can someone so successful screw up frying oysters??) and the wins aren't exactly thrilling. Still, sometimes it's nice to have that kind of thing on the menu, the sense that reality television can raise up the deserving and talented, that some people are still willing to put their rep on the line and play for charity, maybe even a little bit for fun.

Then there's Project Runway, which is limping into its twelfth season this month, having been jettisoned by Bravo and picked up, none too successfully, by Lifetime in 2009. Like Top Chef, Project Runway has done All Stars seasons, giving former contestants the opportunity for a do-over; for this season, fans were asked to vote someone back into the Parsons workroom for another shot at a Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and sartorial immortality. (Or collaborations with Payless, a la the show's most successful winner, Christian Siriano-- whichever.) Of course the fan favorite was a pretty but apparently prickly girl named Kate. There were the requistite determined statements about proving herself this time around. Mostly it was interesting to see other contestants crowding around her for little pieces of wisdom, a reminder that reality shows run on their own odd sets of rules ("when do we start tomorrow?" one girl asked, and Kate said they'd probably be in the workroom from "6 to 11," which puts a lot of the show in perspective-- a seventeen hour day of sewing would make anyone a little prickly, I think). 

But then there's the kind of show that's only marginally skill-based, that's intended mostly to exploit exhaustion and drunkenness and youth. I'm talking, of course, about MTV's The Challenge: Rivals II. I'm not even going to attempt to explain it-- Wikipedia has an exhausting and exhaustive summary-- only to say that it's a marvel to watch for maybe five minutes at a time, which was as long as I could stand it. Mostly what the experience verified was that people who started out making a living being themselves on MTV in the late 90's and early 2000's, which is the last time I watched the channel regularly, are still doing it. I mean, I guess what else are you qualified for, at a certain point? But it was pretty miraculous to witness girls who I watched throw down with one another when I was fourteen or fifteen still doing it now that I'm twenty six (and they must be... in their thirties?)

In some sense it's a job like any other: as reality tv has become codified, the bright young things who get plucked up for fame know that they earn their keep by getting drunk and hooking up, getting in fights, causing drama all night and then moaning about it in the confessional rooms all day. On The Challenge there are labyrinthine rules and grueling physical challenges but the draws are the same: I caught a bit of the after show, which focused ten minutes on two men who'd hooked up their first night in the house, another few on who one of them had hooked up with after, whether the girl he'd kissed counted as hooking up or not. There were, by the end of it, six or eight adults in the room, all of them making money off of the conversation, watching clips of themselves doing things they only blurrily remembered. I changed to channel back to Top Chef Masters. There were no stakes, really, but at least there were skills involved. 

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