Making teen self-improvement a reality
There's something strangely satisfying about watching teenagers on reality TV. Still mired in the age of self-absorption, they're not world-weary enough - or, for the most part, media-savvy enough - to deal in anything but utter honesty.
So when Camille, a Texas blonde with little upstairs but an attitude, announces that "I don't share good" on The N's new series "Queen Bees," we know she means what she says. Ditto when she touts herself as more than "just this pretty girl that walks around."
And we'll forgive her the fact that technically she's not a girl. The seven contestants on "Queen Bees" are all of voting age, yet each still proudly acts like the villainess in a Hollywood high-school movie. They've come to Los Angeles believing they've been cast in a biggest-diva contest. In fact, they've been nominated by relatives and friends to enter an attitude-makeover program.
It's a nifty social experiment, and it marks The N's take on reality TV. Like so many self-help shows on the cable lifestyle channels,
These shows are attitudinal opposites: one mocks the inner circle, one celebrates the outcasts. Yet both of them largely work - especially "Queen Bees," which has the pulpier material to work with. Sure, there's something pathetic about putting girls into a contest, and dangling $25,000 at them, to compel them to be better people. On the other hand, the idea of packing the meanies into bunk beds and locking the door is inspired, in a Jean-Paul Sartre kind of way.
Indeed, "Queen Bees" is the psychological flip-side of MTV's "My Super Sweet 16": Given the glorification of rich kids, and the continuously charmed life of Paris Hilton, you almost can't blame these contestants for embracing self-absorption. (More blameworthy are the parents who nominated their daughters. A few "no's" along the way might have kept the kids from landing here in the first place.)
And since these girls don't seem sharp enough for artifice, we get to see some genuine emotions. The first to get an inkling of her faults is the aforementioned Camille, who, during one intervention session, tearfully admits that "like, I take advantage of, like, the people that, like, I love the most, you know?"
Yes, we have to endure a lot of "likes" and shrieks, plus ample usage of that standard mean-girl sneer: eyebrows raised, upper lip almost-imperceptibly curled. But as they submit themselves to various embarrassments - and to the earnest ministrations of "Dr. Michelle," a psychologist who appears on "The Tyra Banks Show" - the contestants show glimmers of actual self-awareness. Except that in an upcoming episode, they'll meet gossiper Perez Hilton, who will probably reinstate all of their terrible habits.
The role models here leave something to be desired; host Yoanna House won the second season of "America's Next Top Model," and her sugary perfection doesn't send the appropriate message. Laila Ali, who's more muscular than skinny, presides over "The N's Student Body" with a much more fitting demeanor: She's all about encouragement and gentle tough love.
Goodness knows many of them need it. This show features two teams of overweight kids from dueling Illinois high schools. For many of the contestants, weight is only part of the problem; we get glimpses of rough parent-child relationships and unhealthy family lifestyles. One boy's mother died of obesity-related complications a week before filming began.
Ali brooks no excuses, warning the kids about the health problems they'll face if they don't lose weight now. When she asks a 300-plus-pound boy if he's up for the challenge, he answers, "You know it." She shoots back: "I don't know it. You gotta show me."
Yet she's there to cheer them on as they finish their first challenge, climbing 103 stories of the Sears Tower. (By the sixth floor, most of them are panting.) And as the kids take part in an exercise-and-nutrition boot camp, a taste of success goes far. "I just might run for president if I get smaller," one girl says in tonight's premiere.
Even sweeter is watching these kids cheer each other on; what this show demonstrates best is how valuable teammates can be. As the girls on "Queen Bees" might also learn, peer pressure can be channeled into good. Even on TV.