In 2001, MTV sealed a Georgia band named Cartel inside of a plastic bubble for 21 days, in the hopes that their creative genius might flourish. There was only one problem: each of the four band members was a moron. If nothing else, Cartel was a sort of fable for the hubris of producers who thought they could make good TV ginning up, then exploiting, dreams of musical stardom. It was a pattern to be repeated many times, its best legacy the opportunity to look back, point, and laugh.
The finalists were Kendra Wilkinson and Shar Jackson. Since “How much for a flower on my left big toe?” is the longest sentence either of them have ever managed to say, rap falls well outside their skillset. Sebastian Bach also starred, looking as if he’d just gotten plastic surgery to make him look exactly like Kendra Wilkinson. Shar won, and in a subsequent appearance on the TV Guide channel marveled that now, people took her seriously as an artist. Clearly there should have been a spin-off called “Kendra Takes Three Months Working up the Courage to Tell Shar Jackson She’s Not An Artist, After First Spending a Month Trying to Figure Out What Courage Means.”
Fantasia For Real
Fantasia Barrino won Idol in 2003. Seven long years later, this show chronicled her family life and career. Fantasia’s baby voice, spoken through lips coated with enough gloss to lubricate a wind turbine, was the main and constant annoyance—though her brother, Teeny, whose hats were even sillier than his hair and who attempted to launch his own career with something called a “butt-naked car wash,” gave her some stiff competition. One saving grace: Aunt Bunny’s YouTube moment: She was so fed up with Fantasia’s gurgling evasions about having slept with a married man that she couldn’t bring herself to fully enunciate the words “girl, please!” and instead exclaimed, “grrrrrplea.”
Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious
In which Pussycat Dolls founder Robin Antin picked three hot chicks who could hopefully kind of sing to be in her new supergroup, Girlicious (which, naturally, no longer exists). The competitions consisted of pop-song dance routines straight out of a high school talent show, if the high school was for the hot and not terribly bright.
The best thing you can say about this show is that Diddy didn’t do it for the money—he did it for the opportunity to humiliate the young people competing for a recording contract with Bad Boy Records. “Have you been working out [every day]?” he said to a poor, overweight man with a great voice. “You haven’t been giving it your all.” Anxiety about the ruination of his brand was the grand theme. “My name is on this show. I don’t want you all to embarrass me.” That’s right: embarrass Diddy.
Here’s how this one came about: INXS frontman Michael Hutchence hung himself. So his ex-bandmates and friends auditioned his replacement! It came down to a woman, Suzie McNeil, and the eventual winner, JD Fortune. McNeil sounded like Avril Lavigne doing Cher karaoke, and Fortune sounded like a frat boy who longed to be Axl Rose. And Michael Hutchence remained dead.
Daisy of Love
A runner-up in the Bret Michael’s dating show Rock of Love, Daisy de la Hoya here took her turn at choosing an ideal mate from a squadron of gym-buff hopefuls, among them the sort of tattooed musicians for whom a plastic-y L.A. woman is catnip. Speaking in a voice so sultry she sounded half asleep, De La Hoya dismissed them one by one with soulful gems like “You have your guard up. I don’t have time to break that guard down right now.” You don’t have time? But, this is, like, all you do, right?
Tommy Lee Goes to College
Most reality shows aren’t real, duh. But this show was insultingly unreal. It actually started with Tommy Lee hugging his mother good-bye, as if he hadn’t been living on his own, marrying and divorcing blonde actresses and going to jail for the last 43 years. Then there was the lamely quintessential college imagery: Tommy balancing a tower of books in his arms, Tommy grabbing his head in frustration over a hard test, Tommy scoring a hot tutor. With this shows it wasn’t a matter of seeing the seams—it was all seams.