Archive for April, 2008

Dinner: Impostor

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Last week I wrote that one of the reasons we like watching Dancing with the Stars is because it is authentic. Of course the same could be said about a lot of other reality TV shows. For instance COPS, one of TV’s first reality shows, has logged more than 700 episodes of authentic drunks acting genuinely stupid.

So the appeal of DWTS isn’t just because it is real, it is also about seeing a better side of human nature as opposed to the countless “how low can you go” type of reality shows ““ think Rock of Love, Bad Girls Club, Flavor of Love, and on and on. Watching DWTS is uplifting. We get glimpses of the stars as they struggle to master a new dance in just a few days and when they pull off a great performance, it makes us feel good too.

So a few months ago, when our family happened upon a reality show on the Food Network, Dinner: Impossible, which has a similar structure as DWTS, i.e. overcoming a challenge and ultimately succeeding ““ it became a show that we looked forward to watching. The problem is that not long ago it was revealed that its star chef, Robert Irvine, is anything but authentic; he admitted cooking up a fake resume. The Food Network has since said that it would not be renewing his contract.

I think that embellishing his resume wouldn’t have sunk his soufflé so fast if Dinner: Impossible wasn’t built around establishing his credentials as a chef with exceptional experience. If you’re not familiar with the show, it begins with a take-off of Mission Impossible. There is quick cutting between photos of the White House and Buckingham Palace and Chef Irvine looking like a super agent in his black BMW. A voice-over tells us that he has cooked for four presidents and the Royal Family. He turns on the car radio and we hear “that his assignment, should he choose to accept it, is…” He always has just a few hours to prepare the menu and cook a meal, for hundreds or even thousands of guests using inadequate equipment, limited help, and often in difficult locations such as an ice hotel or cattle drive.

Then for the next half hour, we watch as he works against the clock in a somewhat chaotic environment to get the food cooked and served. There’s a lot of Chef Irvine saying into the camera “we’re running behind schedule”¦I don’t know how we’ll ever get all this done on time.” But of course he does, and we enjoy his victory.

After watching a few episodes of the show, we started to appreciate his no-nonsense manner and found that in spite of his gruff, drill sergeant exterior, he was respectful of the cooks who were assisting him. Our 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer, particularly liked his ability to problem solve while working under pressure. Probably in part because of his crew cut, buff physique, and larger than life presence on screen, he became a bit of a hero to her.

We hadn’t watched Dinner: Impossible for several weeks because of bedtimes, schedules, and etc. but when we sat down to watch it last Wednesday Jennifer immediately noticed that they had changed the opening to take out any references to Irvine being a chef to presidents or the queen. That’s when we told her that we had seen a newspaper story saying that he had lied about his experience.

I had put off telling her the truth about him because I didn’t want to disillusion my daughter that someone she looked up to wasn’t who they said they were. I was disappointed when I read Irvine’s admission that he had misled people and misstated the facts and I knew she would be too. It’s one thing when Jamie Lynn Spears is exposed, it’s something else when someone we thought had integrity crashes.

We watched the show that night but it just didn’t have the same impact. In fact, we turned it off feeling very let down.

I guess it could be argued that if he is able to leap tall banquet tables in a single bound when the cameras are rolling and assuming he’s not using a stunt-double, then it doesn’t really matter what he puts on his resume.

But I don’t think the truth about someone is just what they do when they know they are being seen. I think the reality of a person is how they live their life when no one is looking. And in Chef Irvine’s case, when no one was looking he took the opportunity get creative with his work history. How sad, that someone we once believed to be authentic joins the list of other discredited celebrities, politicians, and athletes.

And what do I tell Jennifer? “I’m sorry to say it, dear, but you’ll get used to it.”

Monday Night (Foot)Ballroom

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

Our family has recently gotten hooked on watching Dancing with the Stars. We certainly don’t fall into the “early adopters” category of consumers since DWTS is in its sixth season and we just started watching it. But hey, I just got my first iPod too.

I’m surprised how much I find myself looking forward to Monday nights when Steve and the girls and I line up on the couch to see Jason Taylor and Kristi Yamaguchi paso their doble. We continue to talk about the results during the week, discussing how we weren’t sorry to see Adam Corolla get the boot but we felt bad for his adorable 19-year-old partner, Julianne.

In the past, I have been aware of the show but I had never wanted to watch it; whenever we happened to flip past it, the show looked like has-been celebrities ““ most of whom were such minor stars that I didn’t even recognize their names ““ trying to recapture a moment in the spotlight. Just the fact that its format resembled American Idol was reason enough not to watch it. I had no desire to spend a two hours watching bizarre performances from the contestants”¦and the judges.

But when we tuned in, we discovered that the show does have a soul. Yes, I know it is just a vehicle to make ABC tons of money and launch the DWTS Touring Company, but it is a reality show where the contestants and judges are respectful of one another’s efforts and experience. And here’s a quality sorely missing from most reality shows ““ on DWTS, people are kind to one another.

I would find DWTS entertaining even if I lived alone, but the best part about it is that we can sit down as a family and watch the whole show and not feel like we need to take a shower after it ends. Unlike so much reality television, it isn’t based on real fear, real vulgarity, or real humiliation. It’s the same reason that watching the Olympics ““ or for that matter any live sports event ““ is enjoyable. It’s uplifting to watch determined competitors striving for excellence.

We also like it because the judges aren’t there solely for the purpose of building a franchise around their persona on the show. I don’t foresee a reality show being developed around Carrie Ann as they did with Paula Abdul; for starters, Carrie Ann isn’t a drug addled former pop star who is prone to regular meltdowns. She actually seems quite normal. While the comments of Bruno and Len can certainly be colorful, the focus is still on what they say about the quality of the performance and not on building a reputation as the nice, rude or compassionate judge. They obviously care about ballroom dance as an art form and take the job seriously of judging the contestants against ballroom’s strict standards.

And it’s become apparent to me that even B-list celebrities became celebrities because they were focused and competitive. We’ve gotten a kick out of watching them channel their drive into learning something that may be completely out of their range. How can your heart not go out to Monica Seles who worked so hard to use every bit of her competitive spirit and athleticism but when it came to dancing the mambo she was about as flexible as a graphite tennis racquet? When it comes time to compete, there’s no faking it. As we saw a couple of weeks ago when Mario was distracted and skimped on rehearsing, even his charm and good looks couldn’t save him from the truth of a weak performance.

As a former dancer, I can’t help but put myself in their place. Would I be able to learn a Quickstep in five days and not look like an idiot performing it? That might be possible when you’re 25 or even 35, but when you’re 63 like Priscilla Presley it’s not that easy. She’s the star on the show that I find myself relating to and I’ll bet a lot of other women over the age of 40 are also identifying with her. I’m guessing that’s why she is hasn’t been eliminated so far. Sure, her Botoxed face seems almost mummified, but somehow she manages to still be expressive in her dancing. I give her props for her courage to end up spinning on the floor; it’s a long way down when you’re her age.

It will be interesting to see how long a run DWTS can have. I’m thinking that following the elections in November that they could launch a Dancing with the Rejected Politicians version hosted by Katie Couric ““ after all, she’s going to be looking for work. Depending on who lands in the White House, we could be voting on Hillary’s Jive, Obama’s Foxtrot, or McCain’s Tango. I’m looking forward to that.

The New Dating Game

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

As parents of a daughter who is a high school sophomore and a 19-year-old son who will soon be moving on from the JC to a four year college, we plan to get as much information as possible about the schools they are considering. Obviously, we’re going to look at location, size, cost, financial aid, and probably even campus security because of what happened at Virginia Tech. But there was an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal that convinced me that there is an aspect of college life that we should include in our research because it is so important to the success of our kids’ college experience: it is the “dating” scene.

However, the author of the article, Donna Freitas, wasn’t talking about checking out where students go to see a movie or which is their favorite pizza place. By “dating,” she meant finding out if “hooking up” ““ which means sex without commitment ““ has replaced dating altogether on a particular campus.

The reason this is so important is borne out of statistics from a national college survey of over 2,500 students conducted by Ms. Freitas. The results of the survey showed that even though hooking up is pervasive, the majority of students are “profoundly upset about their behavior” and used words like “used,” “empty,” “duped,” and “miserable” to describe the hook-up experience. They feel that their peers are too casual about sex.

When Ms. Freitas taught a class on “Spirituality and Sexuality in American Youth Culture,” she was surprised to find that students craved hearing about modesty as a virtue and fantasized about romance without sex. This is very ironic: kids used to date and fantasize about having sex, now they have sex and fantasize about dating.

So the question that is raised is this: if today’s college kids feel so bad about their behavior, and many of them long for boundaries in their relationships, why do they continue to hook up? As the article puts it, “most campuses do not provide an environment where acting on romantic desires, rather than sexual ones, is feasible. It would take an 18-year-old of superhuman strength to stand up to the pressures of most college environments.”

Wow. Send my kids away to school? After reading that, I might not let them out of their rooms.

But once I got over my over-reaction, a couple of thoughts came to mind. Even though I went to college in the 1970s in Utah which is predominantly Mormon, college life wasn’t entirely Puritanical. But things have gotten a lot worse. Back then, our sorority hosted a “Hollywood Party” where the idea was to dress up as celebrities, but now popular college parties are based on sexual fantasies. As I’ve learned from my fraternity-president nephew, a popular one is the “Vicar and Schoolgirl Party.” The WSJ article mentioned “CEOs and Office Hos” among other less than tasteful themes.

And everybody is ok with this? Parents are paying $30,000 a year so their daughter can dress up like a hooker? I can imagine the argument being that even nice girls and boys like to dress up like witches and devils once a year on Halloween, so what’s the harm in a little bit of flirtatious role playing?

The problem is that the attitude expressed in the parties doesn’t just happen once a year; it reflects what’s going on in the lives of the college kids every day. Somebody is the predator and somebody is the victim and either way, you end up feeling bad about yourself.  The kids have lost all sense of respecting themselves or their peers. Instead of graduating college feeling empowered, the hook-up culture leaves them feeling devalued ““ and that stays with them a lot longer than anything they learned in any classroom.

It is the parties and romantic relationships that are part of the college experience that are remembered in perfect detail for the rest of your life. I can’t tell you the plot of a Shakespeare play to save my life, but I know exactly what I wore to every party, who I went with, where we went after the party, what happened in the ensuing weeks, and how I felt about it.

So, how do I relate this article to my own kids? Do they have “superhuman strength” to be able to resist the peer pressure on campus? Of course not. The only thing Steve and I can do is keep doing what we have done all along. Expose them to a strong religious foundation, tell them why we believe sex is an expression of a person’s love and commitment for their spouse, and be honest about the consequences of the mistakes we made as young people.

But there is one other thing we can do, and that brings me back to Ms. Freitas’ point in writing the article in the first place. When we visit colleges, we’ll be talking to the students about their dating habits and party lives so we can help our kids find a college that only requires “human” strength to hold fast to their beliefs. From that point, whether our kids choose to stand strong or give into peer pressure is up to them.