Appellate Judge Michael Stailey isn't entirely surprised that gay men get the same amount of respect from reality TV as straight folks.
"If I hide myself wherever I go, am I ever really there?"—Barenaked Ladies
Groundbreaking entertainment or reality television's darkest hour?
One handsome, eligible bachelor. Fifteen attractive, handpicked suitors. Eight days of adventure and romance in scenic Palm Springs, California. Will our bachelor find true love or will the game being played prove too much for everyone involved?
Reality TV isn't anything new; Allen Funt was popping out of bushes and mailboxes onto unsuspecting participants more than 50 years ago. Nor is it uniquely American; Japanese, German, and Norwegian shows make Candid Camera look like Romper Room. However, in recent years, cash-strapped networks have embraced the genre, soaring it to new heights (first seasons of Survivor, The Real World) and plunging it to new depths (Fear Factor, Temptation Island).
Dating shows themselves have become a powerful sub-genre—Blind Date, elimiDATE, Joe Millionaire, The Bachelor—capturing the hearts and minds of millions. Networks love these shows because they cost almost nothing to produce. Advertisers love them because they hit on key consumer demographics. Audiences love them because they are able to vicariously watch their family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues become overnight celebrities, giving hope to the endless throng of Americans craving their 15 minutes of fame.
Everybody wins, right? Not exactly.
To keep audiences coming back for more, producers must continually push the boundaries of voyeurism, giving viewers something they've never seen, letting them in on the joke or the secret while keeping unsuspecting participants in the dark.
But what happens when these shows go too far?
2003 heralded a "coming out" for American society. With the popularity of network series like Will & Grace and cable series like Queer as Folk, the country showed signs of setting aside centuries of blind, puritanical conservatism and actually acknowledging the existence of the gay community. Capitalizing on the opportunity, Bravo (the one-time arts network) launched two new reality series that summer: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the first gay makeover show (not really, but for sake of argument humor me here); and Boy Meets Boy, the first gay dating show. While Queer Eye and the Fab 5 have forever cemented a place for themselves in pop culture history, Boy did not fare as well.
Why, you may ask? (If you've read this far.)
The network and the producers may have had their hearts in the right place, but they left their brains and moral compass at home!
The idea was simple enough: take one bachelor, throw in 15 potential partners, and stir until only the best match remains. For the first time in television history, we would see a diverse group of gay men engaging in the same dating rituals as straight folk. No drag queens, no leather clad musclemen, no flaming interior designers. Just normal guys: your friends, your brothers, your cousins, your co-workers.
Sadly, it was all too good to be true.
The concept wasn't good enough for Bravo. Where was the excitement? Where was the drama? Where were the twists?
Convinced no one was going to watch an innocent gay dating show, they turned it into a game—a dark game the participants had no idea they were even playing. For you see, of the 15 suitors, eight were gay and seven were straight. Not only that, each straight guy was lead to believe they were the only wild card in the bunch. Their objective: be chosen as the one true love and win $25,000—all this unbeknownst to our bachelor, James, and his best friend Andra. James was genuinely looking for someone to connect with on something more than a superficial level, never realizing he was little more than a Truman Show-esque lab rat.
James and his best gal pal Andra are given eight days to relax and enjoy a million dollar home in the California desert oasis of Palm Springs. Down the street are 15 potential partners for James, sharing an equally nice home. Over the course of the next week, James will get to know each of these men and ultimately decide who is the best match for him. The winner will join James on a New Zealand vacation and, with any luck, begin a beautiful relationship.
What James fails to realize is how quickly this time will go. By the end of the first evening, James must send three of the mates packing. In fact, every 48 hours after that, three more must be chosen to leave, until only three remain. To help him get to know these potential partners better, Bravo has arranged a series of adventures and getaways ranging from horseback riding, rock climbing, and hot air ballooning to dancing, karaoke, and candlelit dinners. The pressure is on and the pace exhausting, but Andra is there to help James get the female perspective on each of the boys and help him decide who stays and who goes. Imagine their shock when it comes down to the final day and it's revealed one of the three finalists is straight.
Having watched most of the series's original run, I was drawn into the invented drama. Which ones are straight? Can James tell? How far will they go to win?
Sitting down and watching the series on DVD, I quickly found myself sickened with the production team's subtle coercion and blatant disregard for human decency. As the number of potential mates dwindled, the manipulations increased; the producers stacking the deck, to ensure at least one straight man would make it to the final round. The competition between mates heated up as well, with the straight boys doing everything to maintain their charade, even in the midst of increasingly intimate situations. By the third episode, the show became less about making deep human connections and more about seeing who would crack first under the pressure.
These were good people being toyed with and manipulated all in the name of television ratings. Each participant has a personal commitment to the gay community and wanted to be part of something that would champion change. To their credit, James and Andra stayed with it, right up to the very end, knowing full well they had been played and sacrificing themselves for the greater good—the hope of breaking down barriers for the mere glimmer of long overdue acceptance and equality.
Did it work? Well, we're talking about it. That's a start.
Presented in 1.33:1 full frame format, the transfer is modern television at its finest, complete with MTV inspired transitions and musical underscore. Colors are strong and there's no evidence of digital tampering. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is adequate for a reality series.
The bonus features included in this set shed some much-needed light on what was going on behind the scenes. Extended sequences of certain scenes show how critical editing is in creating drama and maintaining tension for a series such as this. Casting interviews give insight into many of the suitors who never made it past the first few elimination rounds. Cast bios and "where are they now?" entries are all text driven and far from complete. The exit interviews, some of which made it into the final episode, are interesting and show how the potential mates felt about the entire experience and the secret infusion of straight men into the game.
The one must-see of this entire set is Andra's reaction to the producer's revealed twist (the straight guy) and the 40-minute charged conversation with James that followed. It perfectly summarizes everything wrong with this experiment and exonerates all of us who were sucked into the trap.
Boy Meets Boy: Complete Season One is worth watching, if only to show there is no real difference between gay and straight. We are all human beings, with the same fears, flaws, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It's also a perfect case study on how Reality TV can easily cross the lines of decency into sadistic manipulation of human emotions for fun and profit. With any luck, it will be a learning experience on both fronts. Let's not make the same mistake twice.
This court finds Bravo, NBC, creators Douglas Ross, Dean Minerd, and Tom Campbell, and smarmy host Dani Behr guilty of manipulation in the first degree. All parties are hereby sentenced to a new season of Survivor in which the challenges are designed by the participants of Boy Meets Boy. Turnabout is fair play. This court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
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