Last week, America's Next Top Model (The CW, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET) returned for its eighth season of shrieking joy, weepy toil, and the steadfast pursuit of fierceness. The premiere featured a boot-camp sequence that served to remind us what the show values most—toughness, discipline, the cultivation of a distinctive stride. The heart sank to see Kathleen, strangely radiant for such a dim bulb, sent packing so quickly, even if the head did not. ("I think you didn't completely understand the concept," a judge told her when evaluating her photo shoot. "I know, right?" our girl replied. "I didn't!") The show's editors highlighted the emerging love-hate relationship between Jael and Renée with record deftness. In a twist on old themes, the Ivy League girl is also a plus-size girl. In a marvel of casting, the Texas girl is also a Russian mail-order bride. And host and creator Tyra Banks' mother-hen-as-diva persona has blossomed into a routine with the force of an archetype.
But how well does it travel? Australia's Next Top Model (VH1, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) gives the franchise a Down Under makeover with bland results. Where an American series would linger on the girls' personal rivalries and self-dramatized interior struggles, here the catfighting in the foreground is among two rival cliques, there's comparatively little emphasis on sketching characters, and moments of intimacy seldom last longer than a phone call to Mum. A U.S. audience waits in vain for the telltale pyrotechnics that follow from the reality-show version of American individualism. Meanwhile, the show treats matters of body image in a bizarre fashion: Between airing concerns about whether Nicole has an eating disorder and bringing a nutritionist in to talk to the girls, the producers deliver three dozen Krispy Kremes. Elsewhere, Alanna exults in recognizing a rival's weakness: "Gemma has her insecurities, and weight is one. I can see that." Seeing that, she as much as licked her chops.
The soundtrack goes heavy on glassy electronica, all bloodless pulses and empty chimes, music to which you can neither dance nor eat dinner, but only order overpriced vodka. It's a joy whenever the forlorn piano comes in to underscore a somber moment, or when the girls start shrieking—which happens often, as a depilatory theme materializes. First, a merciless squad of bikini-waxers pays a house call; later, the girls submit to the potions and tweezers of "Australia's Eyebrow Queen." Instead of Tyra's big-sister act, we have the icy professionalism of one Erika Heynatz, whose highest compliment is, "You've got that little bit of shamelessness in ya!"
Just as Australia's Next Top Model dilutes Tyra's formula in exporting it to the antipodes, Pussycat Dolls: The Search for the Next Doll (The CW, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) poisons it by bringing it to the land of the hoochie. You've heard of the Pussycat Dolls, perhaps even wishing that your girlfriend was a freak like them. They began as a particularly glitzy and well-connected neo-burlesque act and now stand (knees apart, backs arched) as a small empire: a multi-platinum pop record, a branded lounge at Caesar's Palace, a line of suitably modest sportswear … Last spring, the group broke a five-inch heel in its strut toward media domination when Hasbro bowed to remedial decency and cancelled its plan to sell plastic Pussycat Doll figurines to 6-year-olds. And yet the valiant group has plunged ahead with this resoundingly cynical and, worse, poorly paced venture onto the airwaves.
The presiding diva is Dolls founder Robin Antin, a Hollywood choreographer given to wearing silly caps. The host is Mark McGrath, who makes only occasional efforts to conceal his boredom. Their quest is to discover a woman worthy of joining the group—no mere song-and-dance gal, Antin says, but a soul who "embodies what it is to be truly a Pussycat Doll." The producers elucidate what that means, truly, when they show a clip of one aspirant proclaiming that the Dolls are "all about female empowerment," and, a moment later, run footage of another desperately overtaxing her push-up bra. The contestants hail from all over this great land, yet all of them look like nightclubbing chicks from south Jersey. To judge by the grooming and carriage of the present Pussycat Dolls, the show's winner will end up looking like a Jersey chick who has lived in Los Angeles for four months.
It is difficult to discern what the prevailing standards of Doll decency are. While the famously demure Lil' Kim, serving as a judge, admonishes a contestant not to "focus so much on being sexy," Antin also takes the crew on a field trip to an L.A. restaurant featuring a kind of peep-show booth. "You're gonna go up in groups of three and show off your confidence," she says, confidence presumably being a new slang term for the midriff. She's got that essential bit of shamelessness, yes—as does one competitor named Shauntae. She explained her drive to become the next Doll with reference to all the naysayers back home: "I want all those people to just feel so awful when I make it." Best of luck.