By The Washington Post · Hank Stuever · ENTERTAINMENT, TV
The month of May was like this even in TV's usual, non-pandemic times. Once the season finales are over and the singing competitions have crowned their winners, networks often set their trash out on the curb, usually just before Memorial Day.
Three new shows from Fox ("Ultimate Tag," "Labor of Love" and "Celebrity Watch Party") certainly have that late-spring stink about them - shows that are each mildly enjoyable in a fleeting way while also serving as a sort of omen about what lies at the bottom of most barrels.
Only one - "Celebrity Watch Party," which premiered May 7 and airs Thursday nights - can be fully regarded as a product of the covid-19 moment. Based on a 2013 British show called "Gogglebox" (which was already copied as "The People's Couch" on Bravo several years ago), it's a show about watching people (celebrities in this case) sit on their couches at home and yell at the screen while they watch TV.
Participants include Rob Lowe and his sons; Tyra Banks and her mother; Joe Buck and his wife; Meghan Trainor and her family; Justin Long and his brother; Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and his wife; Raven-Symoné and some friends; and, it almost goes without saying, the ever-available Osbournes.
It's hard to think of a show that would be easier to make, which is why Fox ordered 10 episodes last month as a fun, fizzy way to fill up some of the prime-time schedule while the network, like its competitors, rations out what's left in its cupboards. The celebs are of course game, because all their other gigs dried up. "Celebrity Watch Party" is one of the rare ways left to be on TV without using Zoom.
The viewer's reflexive response is of course despair: Has it really come to this, you ask - watching other people watch TV?
Luckily, critics and others already worked through this quandary, back when Bravo's version premiered. "The People's Couch" seemed at first like a new low in a medium out of ideas, but those of us who actually watched it found it charmingly (if absurdly) intimate, mainly because the viewers Bravo chose to follow were personable, diverse and willing to say whatever was on their minds about what they were seeing. Their passion for good and bad television - as well as their low-stakes regard for it - had a leavening effect on my own self-important sense of criticism. It was a reminder that TV is, after all, just TV. Sometimes the best thing about it is its role as a reliable campfire, around which we gather with those we love.
"Celebrity Watch Party" has a similar vibe, as its participants howl in anguish (on a recent episode) while watching "Kings of Pain," History's horrifying reality show in which two dudes (a wildlife biologist and an animal handler) subject themselves to stings and bites from exotic insects and reptiles.
The same episode shifted moods, as the participating households took in a cable broadcast of the 1987 classic "Dirty Dancing." The pained look on 71-year-old Ozzy Osbourne's face, as he is made to endure the entire movie! As a visual of 2020's stay-at-home misery, it should hang in a museum, where, with its subtle range of suffering and ennui, it can beguile visitors for centuries to come.
Wednesday's premiere of "Ultimate Tag," meanwhile, comes to us from another time, not so long ago, when it might have been fun to have a sweaty fitness fiend with a name like "The Caveman" or "Banshee" or "The Flow" chase you around an obstacle course and try to rip a tag from your shirt. Now you'd give anything for jockos like that to give you at least six feet when you're out for a walk or navigating the narrow aisles of a CVS.
Hosted by all three football-playing Watt brothers (J.J. and the other two), the competition seems to have emanated from a semiprofessional tag circuit, which, if you don't mind, I'll skip researching so as not get further depressed about the state of American adulthood. Many of the contestants and their costumed pursuers mention participation in CrossFit exercise regimens, which should be all we really need to know.
Aesthetically, "Ultimate Tag" seems to aggregate the look of pro wrestling, roller derby, a trampoline party and an expensive gym membership. It has none of the coded piety of "American Ninja Warrior," and not much time or inclination to tell contestant's sob stories, if they have any. Mostly it's just overproduced, hard-to-follow rounds of tag. When one female contestant shoots a dirty look at the glamazon who just tagged her, there is just a hint of trash talk and escalated conflict. Poor J.J. Watt looks momentarily confused: Is this going to become that kind of show?
"Labor of Love," a mating reality series which premieres Thursday, is far less confused about what it wants to be. Its central subject is 41-year-old Kristy Katzmann, a Chicagoan determined to find a man who is ready to have a baby. Kristy, whose first marriage ended quickly, has been to the fertility experts and even had some of her eggs frozen as a backup plan. Her doctor says she is ready to roll.
So it's off to Atlanta (it's always Atlanta), where Netflix's recent reality hit "Love Is Blind" made the world safe again for the basic dating show, and where no trope is too tropey and viewers get to experience the process without suffering a whit of voyeuristic regret.
Aided by "Sex and the City's" Kristin Davis, who hosts the show, Kristy begins meeting a crop of 15 eligible men, all in their 30s and 40s, who swear they're ready to settle down and be a dad. Their first hurdle is to submit semen samples to a mobile fertility lab parked in the driveway, to determine the volume, concentration, motility and morphology of their sperm.
Some of the men, viewers will see, are more viable than others - microscopically and also on the macro level. How tragically fitting when the hottie with the highest sperm count (317 million! They actually give him a trophy) is also the guy who forgets Kristy's name.
Unlike "The Bachelorette," where the dreams are of rings, wedding bells and foofy la-dee-das, "Labor of Love" is more bluntly and even gallingly heteronormative; it is literally about breeding, obsessed with a biological outcome above all other options, including adoption, which Davis mentions was the right solution for her. Most of the men share Kristy's deadline determination to procreate; one bachelor keeps reminding us he's the only male left who can pass along his family name. He also happens to be the kind of reality-show bro whose personality and genetic qualities are a dime a dozen.
As Kristy begins to narrow the field ("I don't see us starting a family together," she informs each rejectee), "Labor of Love's" most winning aspect is that it is finished - in the can, as they say, and ready to take its place on a schedule that will look more sparse as the summer continues.
I'm not ready to sound all the alarms, but if I watched four hours of "Labor of Love," imagine how desperate we're going to get in the weeks and months ahead.
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"Ultimate Tag" (one hour) premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox.
"Celebrity Watch Party" (one hour) airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.
"Labor of Love" (one hour) premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on Fox.