What we really want from reality TV

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I almost auditioned to be on Nashville Star this year. I almost applied to be on I’m From Rolling Stone, too. In the end, I’m more relieved I didn’t try for the Rolling Stone internship gig than the Music City singing contest. More on that later. When pressed, I think the reason I didn’t attempt either is because, like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show, I’m most comfortable up in the balcony, finding reasons to laugh.

It’s strange to be hurling more sour grapes toward the magazine because I think I would’ve hated the Rolling Stone position more. I hate rock music. I never read Rolling Stone. Just the name, though, lends so much cache that you’d be a fool to not try. (And I’ve never denied that I’m a fool).

Both shows debuted recently, and both were jaw-dropping let-downs.

I’m from Rolling Stone is produced in partnership with MTV, so there’s necessarily an element of style over substance that will invade perhaps every decision, hence my relief now that I’d not shown any interest. What the producers are likely most surprised about now is that there are so many people, like me, who expected a treatment more along the lines of Project Runway than The Real World.

If you care anything about the premise of the show, by now you’ve read about the participants and, honestly, I’m too tired myself of reading about them, so I’ll surely not bore you with my take on these bios. While it admittedly may have been difficult pulling drama out of a continual writing exercise, somebody somewhere should have figured out a way to make the premise work without sacrificing the intelligence of the audience. It’s a task that should’ve been tackled long before “casting” began.

Nashville Star, on the other hand, went in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of plying youthful “personalities” upon us, it chose participants who fit so far outside of both Nashville’s Music Row paradigm AND the expectations of a reality television show that I’m already looking forward to not hearing any of these people on the radio when this is all over.

We only need list the Music Row “reps” appearing on the show to demonstrate how much the industry doesn’t care about this franchise anymore: Jewel, Cowboy Troy, Randy Owen (from the 1980-90s group, Alabama). Even its biggest star, Blake Shelton, only boasts a handful of hits in his five-year-long career. As for Anastasia, you can tell she’s being honest and that she’s pulling no punches. She never strains to get a laugh or sugar-coats bad news: that’s cool.

But what the execs at Nashville Star could’ve done was recruit the most anti-Nashville Star radio programmer they could find and, week after week, have him (or her) tell the contestants exactly why he (or she) won’t play their music if they win:

They were anointed by a TV show.

Or maybe bring in someone from the eventual winner’s new record label and have him (or her) explain how difficult it will be to promote a performer when a chunk of the profits—assuming there are any—will most likely land in the pocket of the television production company. In fact (note to producers:) if this were to all happen on episode one, that would make for an interesting TV show.

With most reality-based television, half the fun from the viewer’s standpoint is to try to figure out where reality ends and the job of building a television show begins. It’s perplexing then to comprehend just what’s going on at Nashville Star. In years past, it seemed obvious they were searching for new cookie dough to fit the cutter that’s long been in place (ie., Miranda Lambert) and then, at the last minute, chose something a tiny little bit surprising (ie., Buddy Jewell) when the resident hat-act (ie., insert male hat-act name here) who maybe should’ve won didn’t.

The most surprising “casting” element to come from the debut episode of Nashville Star, then, is that of its first loser, Tim LaRoche, a handsome if shaggy stay-at-home dad who clearly plays guitar better than he sings. His performance was, maybe, 70% pickin’ and 30% singin’. And this—it apparently bears repeating—is a singing contest. That, of course, was the main reason he was ousted.

In instances like this, viewers suspect the contestant has, generally speaking, been abused by the system behind the scenes. There was a girl, Katherine, who was kicked off this past season’s Project Runway because, from what I can tell, it came down to her and one of the eventual stars of the show and…well, because she was of a “lesser” personality, there was no question. She had to go. Despite the fact that, based on all we’d seen, she really wasn’t the one who deserved to go.

For that to have happened in this instance, a producer would had to have told the contestant LaRoche to play the hell out of the guitar and, despite logic, he would have internally reasoned it made more sense than singing well.

Either that, or this season there really isn’t a bumper crop of talent. I know people who’ve applied for American Idol and, let me tell you, for the first couple auditions you don’t even see Paula, Randy or Simon. So those people who get on the show who really, really, really suck—the William (“She Bangs”) Hungs of reality talent shows—are either led to believe they genuinely have some talent, because they made it that far, or like Hung, they know its all part of "the show."

If that’s the case for this year’s Nashville Star, then how did we end up with ten hum-drum, so-so vocalists and, literally, no standouts?

Most disappointing is that I’m going to watch every single episode just to prove that I’m right and, perhaps out of pity, I might just break down and buy the winner’s album.

There’s a couple songs on that Erika Jo album that ain’t half bad, you know. 

NASHVILLE STAR: Thursdays at 9 p.m., Central time, on USA Network.

I’M FROM ROLLING STONE: Sundays at 9 p.m., Central time, on MTV.