Monday, May 07, 2007

as charming as a sewer rat eating the eyes from an alley cat: my review of Charm School

There's an entertaining British reality show called Ladette to Lady which takes a bunch of obnoxious, overly sexualized women and sends them to a finishing school to teach them to be ladylike. So when I heard about VH1’s Charm School, I thought, cool, an American version of Ladette to Lady.

But I was wrong. Charm School is instead a disgusting, puerile, putrescent monstrosity that represents the very worst television can possibly offer. Words cannot properly express the loathsomeness of this show; one would have to instead combine vomiting noises with the sounds of flies circling shit.

The ostensible premise of Charm School is to take the vulgar, trashy women who vied for Flavor Flav’s affections on Flavor of Love and send them to “etiquette boot camp.” The actual purpose of the show is to find new ways to humiliate these women; the winner is likely to be the craziest and meanest of the bunch.

There is nothing charming about Charm School. First off, the mistress of the school is comedian Mo’Nique, who is funny in her standup act and quite presentable on the show but is hardly the epitome of style and grace (be honest, Mo’Nique, if you had any real class you would never have agreed to appear on this show). Her assistants are some woman who, like Mo'Nique, seem strict but basically decent, plus some guy who's just a prick who delights in insulting women. I can’t find these cast member's names on VH1’s website, which shows you about how important they are to the show.

Charm School made its intentions clear in the first episode when the girls were forced to take a long hike and camp in the woods, then were divided into two teams that had to race through an obstacle course. What, you ask, does this have to do with etiquette? Nothing, although Mo’Nique makes some claim about measuring teamwork.

The team that lost seemed to lose primarily (at least as portrayed in the show, which is of course edited for effect rather than truth) because one of the girls chosen to be a team captain chose weak girls who she worried would feel hurt if no one seemed to want them. She was roundly criticized for this shocking display of decency by the judges, who told her that this was a competition and she couldn’t be soft. I’m sure Miss Manners would completely agree.

In episode two, which I foolishly decided to watch, some guy from The Bachelor got to decide which girl was most presentable. One stole another’s expensive dress to rattle her, then told her so right in front of the bachelor who, instead of being shocked at such creepy behavior, crowned her the winner.

This is all particularly horrendous because Ladette to Lady shows it is possible to make a cheesy reality show that has a little honor to it.

Ladette is not an especially classy show. Basically, they get a bunch of alcoholics, sexoholics, and tomboys together in an old etiquette school where they are taught skills that were popular amongst society women decades ago, like cooking and flower arranging. The show loves its drunken women. In season two, one woman flashes her breasts on every occasion (on English TV, and on the Sundance Channel, which shows it in the U.S., nudity is allowed, so there is none of the blurriness VH1 employs to hide the naughty bits), and not an episode goes by in which we don’t see an archival clip of her lifting her shirt. Ladette also is constantly sending the girls off to pubs or leaving them alone with bottles of booze just so they can go wild and then be chastised by the school’s teachers.

At the same time, the show really does reward graciousness. It does teach these women how to speak more eloquently and carry themselves more gracefully. The women who keep causing trouble get kicked out, the women who work hard and improve stay. Ladette is ultimately a show about transformation, and while most of it is in thrall to drunken debauchery, towards the end the show seamlessly shifts into something positive That glorifies hope and possibility.

But Charm School doesn’t want their cast to transform themselves; it wants them to abase themselves. The show seeks to find all the ways these women can be humiliated, and the women themselves are willing and eager participants in their own abasement.

This is a shame, because these women need help. Obviously VH1 reality shows are all as unreal as you can get, heavily scripted and cast with people with no interest in anything except gaining fame and fortune (I kind of liked some of these shows at first but the utter and complete falseness in every second of every minute of every show eventually drove me away). The girls of Charm School are all hoping that, like “New York” in the first season of Flavor of Love, they can parlay their shame into a career. I’m sure they would argue that it’s just an act, that they’re playing for the cameras and that this is not really who they are at all, and there would be some truth to that. At the same time, people with high self-esteem would never go on a television show in front of millions of people and grovel for success as these women do. The girls of Charm School could use some genuine lessons in etiquette and charm, but what they really need most is a good therapist.

This is what makes Charm School so odious. It takes very screwed up women and tries to screw them up more for the entertainment of the masses. It is not an American version of Ladette to Lady but rather a serialized version of the Jerry Springer Show. Like Springer, Charm School thrives on sleaze, and just as Jerry would end each show with a smug, hypocritical lecture on how disgusting his guests acted, Charm School wants its women to be revolting so it can wag its finger in their faces and say, shame, shame on you. And just as with Springer, the most immoral participants are not the guests, but the producers who exploit them and the audience that revels in their degradation and in a self-righteous sense of superiority.

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