There's one reality-television trend that I could do with a lot less of in 2005: competitions to re-cast old TV shows. Could there be a more joyless exercise in forced nostalgia than last fall's In Search of the Partridge Family on VH1? Oh, wait, there is: The Real Gilligan's Island, the TBS series (Tuesdays at 8 p.m., ET) that premiered in November and will be ending its eight-episode run next week. Everything that was lighthearted and goofy about the original sitcom (including its fatally catchy theme song) has been laboriously retooled for this pointless update. Watching the show for several consecutive hours, as I recently did, can cause one to spiral into a very bad place.
Perhaps every generation is fated to spend its middle age recycling the pop culture of its youth: The 1970s looked back at the '50s with hit shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, while the '80s revisited the '60s (or the decade's latter-day survivors) in shows like The Wonder Years and Family Ties. These shows recreated the zeitgeist of the decade in question by affectionately revisiting its music, politics, fashions, and slang. By contrast, this new breed of reality-television show revenant seems to have a historical memory emptied of everything except, well, television shows.
The Real Gilligan's Island cobbles together a cast of "real" people who bear a vague physical resemblance to the cast of the '60s original, in order to … what, again? The creators themselves (who include veteran Mike Fleiss, the mastermind behind The Bachelor and Who Wants To Marry a Multimillionaire?) seem not to have a firm grasp on their show's flimsy premise. The first few episodes focused on the contest between two teams, each of which represented a complete cast from the original show. "Ginger Rachel" (former swimsuit model Rachel Hunter, who is better known as Rod Stewart's ex-wife) went head-to-head against "Ginger Nicole" (Baywatch alum Nicole Eggert), for example, and "Professor Pat" against "Professor Eric," in competitions that ranged from nautical tasks like building a seaworthy raft to that standard reality-show fallback—consuming repulsive foods. (One such competition produced the best line I've heard on reality-television all year, when "Millionaire Stearns" fondly observed of his wife: "I felt so proud watching her eat bee larvae.")
Now that the castaways have been whittled down from the original 14 to the final seven, the focus of the show has shifted from rivalry and teamwork to cutthroat, Survivor-style competition. The sole player left at the end of next Tuesday's season-closer will not only be "rescued"—a puzzling reward, since the other contestants will presumably not be abandoned to live out their remaining days on a small island in the Gulf of Mexico—but will win a 2005 Ford Mustang and quarter of a million dollars.
All this is, of course, profoundly silly, but that's not what makes it such uncompelling television. (Some of my favorite shows are dumber than rocks.) The biggest problem with The Real Gilligan's Island is its failure to grasp the structural principles of the reality genre. The few reality series that have managed to stick around for more than one season—The Apprentice and The Amazing Race come to mind—have the elegance and simplicity of a good board game. Contestants focus on a single imperative—getting a job, winning a race around the world—to which all the individual "challenges" are logically subordinated. Without that unifying structure, the hothouse reality format can easily devolve into a confusing, chaotic free-for-all, a dilemma grimly summarized by one of the castaways on The New Gilligan's Island: "We're rats trapped in a cage. You've just got to gnaw your way out."
Last fall's In Search of the Partridge Family provided a slightly wittier model for the let's-recast-a-sitcom reality show. Though still ultimately pointless, it has the good sense to laugh at itself. This seven-part series on VH1 was essentially a variety show, in which candidates sang, danced, and acted to compete for the roles of Shirley, Keith, Danny, and Laurie Partridge, cheered on all the while by real-life cast members Shirley Jones, Danny Bonaduce, and David Cassidy. The winning cast will star in an updated version of the show, premiering Jan. 22.
The singing auditions were a predictably painful roundup of American Idol-style R & B belting. The acting segment, on the other hand, was a bizarre juxtaposition of past and present: Using blue-screen technology, the modern-day pretenders to the Partridge throne were projected virtually back in time to replace their fictional counterparts in scenes from the original series. There was something uncanny about watching the 70-year-old Shirley Jones introduce a scene in which her younger self, projected on a huge video screen, traded 30-year-old dialogue (including laugh track) with a lineup of modern-day Keiths.
The Real Gilligan's Island, while obviously utterly dependent on the original for its existence, never revisits the show in clips or still pictures— the producers probably sensed that a mere glimpse of the original cast would throw the new one into unflattering relief. In Search of the Partridge Family, on the other hand, used the '70s series as raw material to construct a Frankenstein-like hybrid of old and new. The result was unsettling but strangely watchable, if only because the snappy half-hour show took itself far less seriously than TBS' plodding, hourlong Gilligan series. The underlying pathos of the attempt to recreate an old TV show was never far from the minds of either the hosts or the participants; referring to Danny Bonaduce's checkered post-Partridge career as a drug addict and sometime criminal, one prospective Danny told the real Bonaduce that he, too, looked forward to being on The Surreal Life when he got older.
That joke (unfunny as it is) hints at the doomed future of the let's-recast-a-sitcom reality genre. If that boy's aspiration is to become, not just Danny Partridge, a character on a show most 12-year-olds have never seen, but a has-been Danny Partridge reliving his glory days on VH1, what pop-culture ephemera will be left to recycle when the new fake Danny grows up? If we can't think up any new shows of our own, are we leaving any fodder for nostalgia to future generations?