Since the highly successful debut of Survivor five years ago, summertime has come to mean an onslaught of reality TV. Beauty and the Geek, a new WB series from producer Ashton Kutcher of Punk'd fame, is one of the first and more promising out of the gate this year. While it is hard to get excited about any new series from a genre so clearly in decline, as summertime network viewing goes, it could be worse.
"This is not a dating show," a voice-of-God narrator says at the start of tonight's pilot. "This is a social experiment ... to see if beautiful women can turn geeks into social superstars. And can geeks help these beauties become more than just a pretty face?"
First, Beauty and the Geek is not a social experiment. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous "Obedience to Authority" study - in which participants showed a willingness to inflict what they thought were severe electric shocks to others, provided the actions were ordered by an authority figure - was a social experiment. The definition could probably be stretched to include a planned community like Maryland's Columbia or New Jersey's Levittown.
Beauty and the Geek, rather, is a relatively low-rent reality show. Based on the first hour, it can be said with certainty that no one will be made wiser about social relationships by watching this show.
One might smile at some of the things contestants say. Take Bill, for example, a 29-year-old who blames his "trouble meeting women" on the demands placed on his time as vice president of the Dukes of Hazzard fan club.
But Bill's problems interacting with women are nothing compared to Chuck, a medical student whose nose starts to bleed whenever he interacts closely with one of the female contestants.
"What is this, like a stress thing or something?" his dance partner, Caitlin, demands with a real edge to her voice after he starts dripping blood on her.
These men do indeed have stress issues despite their Mensa memberships and perfect SAT scores. The women can get a little jangled, too, when forced to answer questions about geography, like "Which state is east of West Virginia?" Hint: It is not South Dakota, the answer Caitlin gives.
The series is structured as a Contest, with each of the seven women and seven men pairing up as a female-male couple to compete for a prize of $250,000. The first round of challenges involves the women being quizzed on history, politics, spelling and geography, while the men try for competence in such "social skills" as dancing and giving a massage. The women teach the men to dance, and the men teach the women how to answer such questions as, "How do you spell calendar?"
And, because it is not a dating show, the male-female teams each share a room - sometimes a bed. Furthermore, there are night-cams to catch any advanced lessons in social skills that might be offered.
Like all reality shows, Beauty and the Geek does traffic in some destructive stereotypes - in this case, attractive women being stupid, for example. It also sends a message that equates social competency with sexual activity - a notion even more troubling when one considers the summertime teen audience at which the series is targeted.
One female contestant does leave her partner in bed under cover of darkness to make out with another guy whom she suddenly finds attractive after lots of champagne and a group session in the hot tub. The night-cam captures it all.
A final reminder that Beauty and the Geek is not a dating show.
Beauty and the Geek
When: Tonight at 8
Where: WNUV (Channel 54)
In brief: The show that answers the question: Can a geek find happiness in giving good massage?