The gulf between dreary reality TV and the snappy sort has never looked wider than in two premieres this week.
"The Surreal Life," starting tomorrow night on the WB (9 p.m., Channel 56), represents the mind-numbing variety. This pointless piffle trolls for voyeuristic nuggets by making roommates of teary Tammy Faye Messner, "ChiPs" star Erik Estrada, and four other people.
"America's Next Top Model," debuting Tuesday on UPN (9 p.m., Channel 38), features sharp characters and scintillating intrigue. Tyra Banks plays den mother and drill sergeant to her 12 handpicked hopefuls jockeying for runway glory and a contract.
Watching faded celebrities cavort in "The Surreal Life" is a sad sport. The first edition last year featured MC Hammer and Emmanuel Lewis. The new group is more pathetic. These personalities have already had their 15 minutes of fame and are back for more. They don't deserve it. They converge on a gaudily decorated house in the Hollywood Hills to be followed by cameras 24 hours a day.
Rob "Vanilla Ice" Van Winkle has an anger problem, moons the camera, and melts down when the gang goes grocery shopping.
Messner, former wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, plans to sleep on a closet floor until Estrada gives up the princess bedroom to her.
After them, the show has to stretch the concept of celebrity to fill the house. There's "Real World" alumna Trishelle Canatella, Traci Bingham of "Baywatch," and Ron Jeremy, who has reputedly appeared in more than 1,700 porn films.
Now, about those models: They're rounded up on the streets of New York City, taken to an aircraft carrier, and put on a runway, without any training, to model for soldiers and firefighters. Tyra Banks, creator of "America's Next Top Model," wants to see what the newcomers can do. She looks horrified, and runway trainer J. Alexander says that they're terrible. Oh well, it's a riveting start.
Banks has done a superlative job of selecting 12 amateurs for the show's second edition. They include a mother, an electrician, and four waitresses.
"You need to live, breathe, and eat this," Banks says, demanding dedication. "Every week one of you guys is going to go home. Every week somebody's going to be heartbroken, and there's only going to be one person remaining."
Judges assess the women's work. The standout in the premiere, for the wrong reason, is Jenascia Chakos, a naive waitress who oversleeps for the first assignment.
She tearfully rushes off to the job, which requires the women to wear only body paint and jewels. Anna Bradfield, a mother, refuses to pose in such a revealing manner. The editing sets up both as prime candidates to be dropped immediately.
Back-stabbing, guilt, and tart commentary punctuate the action. Banks has UPN sitting pretty for at least an hour each week. Perhaps the network should give her more hours to program.
Married with series
NEW YORK -- They're not newlyweds anymore, but Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson are coming back for a second season of "Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica" on MTV. New episodes of the reality series are scheduled to begin at 10 p.m. on Jan. 21.
The first season followed the pop stars from their October 2002 wedding through the beginning of their life together, and it became hugely popular thanks to Simpson's goofy-blonde gaffes.
At 10:30 p.m., MTV will air the debut of " 'Til Death Do Us Part: Carmen & Dave," about the months leading up to the wedding of actress Carmen Electra and guitarist Dave Navarro.
Talk of the dial
10 a.m. WBIX-AM (1060) -- "Stu Taylor on Business." Guests: Michael Pallares, eBay trading assistant; Michael Walsh, athletics director at Washington and Lee University.
2 p.m. WBIX-AM (1060) -- "Dollars & Sense" with Dolores Kong. Guest: Charles B. Carlson, author of "Winning With the Dow's Losers."
Other radio highlights
7 a.m. WGBH-FM (89.7) -- "Classical Weekend." Bach's Concert in D for three keyboards (BWV 1063); Liszt's three Russian transcriptions; Beethoven's Septet; Roussel's Symphony No. 2; Mozart's Piano Sonata in F (K.533/494); Bruckner's Symphony No. 4.
9 a.m. WCRB-FM (102.5) -- "Kids Classical Hour." "Who's Chopin?"
Noon WGBH-FM (89.7) -- "A Celtic Sojourn." The Songs of Jimmy McCarthy.
1 p.m. WHRB-FM (95.3) -- Metropolitan Opera Live. Jacques Lacombe conducts Massenet's "Werther."
8 p.m. WCRB-FM (102.5) -- Boston Symphony Orchestra live. Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos conducts Berlioz's "L'Enfance du Christ."