The most dynamic subgenre of reality television is the caste-climbing makeover competition, and its essential text is Ladette to Lady, canceled this year after three delightful seasons on the U.K.'s ITV. The program endeavored to instill aristocratic values in its young female contestants who were commoners plucked from a newfound segment of the commonalty. The girls tended to look like a football hooligan's idea of a trollop, and any club-chair sociologist could see that the ladettes had realized the constraints of the local class system and had chosen to opt out of it. Instead, the ladettes established a pseudo-subculture and careered around the kingdom like a roaming gang of slags, taking shelter wherever the sound of Oasis being played very loud was coincident with lager on tap. In the last episode of each season of Ladette to Lady—the reliably precious finishing-school graduation scene—the winner made a kind of debut. She was alleged to know both self-respect and how to set a formal dinner, and we were encouraged to believe that both pieces of knowledge mattered to her moral improvement. She entered small-S society.
Matters of class are rather less straightforward on these colonial shores, as evidenced by American Princess (WE). That one whisks its contestants away from Sacramento, Calif., and Pittsburgh to drill them on carriage and elocution in Ye Olde Country. The host is the actress Catherine Oxenberg, who descends from the Glücksburg branch of the House of Oldenburg. No less important, Oxenberg played both Amanda Carrington on Dynasty and the Spencer girl in The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982). She exists at the distant temporal end of the contestants' knowledge of history. Their ideas about nobility and its obligations all come from Disney films, People magazine, and beauty pageants. Their class consciousness was but a vague set of insecurities and shopping lists. They entered the show already having won the big prize of getting to hold court on TV; the winner also gets a "title of nobility" of the kind you can usually find on eBay for, maybe, $300. Then she gets to lord that over her friends back home.
This summer, From G's to Gents (MTV, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) has pimp-rolled exuberantly onto the scene, a carnival about hip-hop culture, black masculinity, preppies, and power. What is a G, you ask? A G is a straight gangsta, dawg. One contributor to Urban Dictionary appraises them as "the most ruthless niggaz on the block." A G can be of any race or ethnicity, but he must take it upon himself to embody a black stereotype. I'm kind of thinking of a cross between King Kong and old-school Ice Cube.
The man shaping these outcasts up is Fonzworth Bentley, a Morehouse man who parlayed a job in retail at Polo first into a gig as P. Diddy's valet and then into a secure station in the hip-hop world. Some of his suits are frightfully lovely, though his daytime handkerchiefs can sometimes be a bit too natty, know what I'm saying. The conceit of the show is that Bentley (né Derek Watkins) is the "president and founder" of a "gentleman's club." The club is said to be "prestigious." I would also add that the club is highly exclusive, as Bentley seems to be the only person in it. He is helped by Fredrick, a black butler, laconic and sardonic: Jeeves by way of Benson.
Bentley's overall philosophy of a gentleman's responsibilities is quite similar to Millicent Fenwick's as expressed in Vogue's Book of Etiquette (1948), with the obvious exception of Mrs. Fenwick's attitude toward empty celebrity: "Publicity for its own sake is not always approved by good usage." No matter. The man is going to find a thug with a heart of gold. Each of the 14 G's is a "pledge" who wears a club jacket with a crestlike insignia seemingly inspired by a label on a bottle of fortified wine. In a weekly twist, they are each given an "ebony sphere" with which to nominate other contestants for elimination, which isn't how we used to do it at bicker but does yield some good noisy beefs and energetic "alliance" story lines.
Of course, it's difficult—what with the completion-bond companies and the parole officers and all—to sign actual criminal sociopaths up for a reality show. Some of the G's are just low-class clowns, and many of these had already been eliminated going into the fourth episode. Consider Pretty Ricky from San Diego, Calif., for instance. It wasn't looking good for him from the moment when, drunk on hard liquor one night at the clubhouse, he took a piss against a wall. Then there was The Truth—a name only a bullshitter would contrive for himself; he was not a G, just a mouthy punk. In contrast, Mikey P. suffered for being a total poser. He lost significant street cred when he said he'd just bought a four-bedroom house in Mercer County, N.J.
No, the G to watch is Creepa, who's a mutant breed of super G, a goon. "You know what a goon is?" he asked the other G's, not quite rhetorically. "A goon's somebody that's hired to terrorize and defeat!" Creepa as much as lists his occupation as "hustla." Creepa calls his sunglasses "hater-blockers," and he leaves them on all the time, owing to all the jealous haters out there. But then, during a one-on-one in the brandy room with Bentley, he shed the shades and lifted his eyes in a decent approximation of sincerity: "In order to be successful, you gotta be ready to broaden your horizons."
Creepa's heart, like his teeth, is made of gold. He brought a lot of energy to both the fashion challenge—where the G's choose outfits to wear to charity events on yachts—and to the cricket lesson as well. Will he be able make his way through a high-society fantasy without assimilating and selling out his inner G? He is, after all, a lot more comfortable with this kind of cultural passing than, say, J. Boogie. Also recently eliminated, J. Boogie was not a G in the slightest, but a kind of B-boy fashion victim on the slum. (Fruit-colored high-tops, buzzy mohawk.) The giveaway came when J. Boogie reported being employed as an office assistant and strained to make the job sound tough in the street-corner sense: "I'm axually workin' in a lab'atory." Bentley saw that the young man would be able to advance in life without the assistance of his gentleman's club: "J. Boog, your membership has been denied. Please remove your blazer."