A much-trimmed version
You can have your Jerry Springers, your hooting audiences, your in-studio bodyguards, your contrived episode premises your slick title cards and your whiny bachelorettes in Alaska who play shamelessly to the camera.
When I want trash "reality" TV, so trashy that even the junkyard rats won't nibble at it, I go for Cheaters, a little-known syndicated show that has become a must-see.
It's not easy to find it doesn't air in every city, and for months, you could only find it in Austin on a digital cable or satellite feed from stations like WGN or WOR. And even then, it only aired after midnight.
Shot in Dallas and hosted by the grittily monotone Tommy Grand (a stage name for actor Tommy Habeeb, a native of Corpus Christi), Cheaters is more brutal than Survivor and 10 times more entertaining than the bimbo/himbo shenanigans of Blind Date.
A suspicious party in a relationship summons Faustian power by bringing the "Cheaters" crew into the couple's ir life. The suspicious party explains why he or she thinks a they think their spouse or lover may be cheating. (It's always the same they're distant, they don't pay as much attention, they "work" later hours.)
Cheaters investigates the possibly wayward mate with listening devices, video surveillance, stakeouts and, in at least one gruesome instance, a hidden camera inside the couple's shared home. When it's clear that the "suspect," as the show calls them, is having an affair, Tommy Grand pretends to be reluctant to show in showing off the video evidence to us and the to an invariably devastated Cheat-ee.
Then, "The Confrontation." At the moment the evidence is revealed, an investigative team is already tailing the cheater in mid-tryst. The Cheat-ee agrees to a face-off, and from there it just gets worse. Outside a crowded Chili's restaurant, on a jogging trail, outside a seedy hotel room. The crew ambushes the cheater with lights and camera. Sometimes punches are thrown before on-duty bodyguards can stop the brokenhearted, cheated-on boyfriend. Sometimes the "perps" run away, dodging cameras to reach their cars. Sometimes the cheaters are unrepentant, blaming a lack of attention, or they simply shrugging their shoulders, saying the whole thing was an accident.
There are train wrecks with less screeching, twisted metal to them. Surgery marathons on The Learning Channel surgery marathons can be far less painful to watch.
But something in the gritty "reality" of the show its mundane locales; its befuddled, wayward lovers; the smarmy, anything-goes instigation of Tommy Grand, who seems to bristle at the very notion that someone might be unfaithful make it for television's me the most compelling hour of television.
Is it awful? Yes.
Is it inexcusable? Certainly.
Am I going to Hell for watching it? Probably, and with a seat reserved in first-class.
Because unlike the many slick talk show sleazefests and gleeful slew of dating programs, Cheaters is a remarkably human drama. Busted cheaters don't throw out catchphrases and wallow in the jeers of an audience. They cower and shrink under the harsh camera lights; they duck and dart and blubber; sometimes they shed real tears.
There's no "Final Word" or wisdom to be gleaned. Couples sometimes reconcile, but more often than not, the show ends by telling us that the infidelity was too much; the relationships ended, the broken parties moved on.
For all its graphic wallowing in naughtiness, the show absurdly takes a moralistic tone, presenting extracurricular sex as the worst of crimes. It sometimes presents the cheaters into caricature villains, captured on night-vision lenses like war criminals.
At its best, or rather worst, Cheaters is grim. Its one note, in the end, is a keening blue riff of sadness. Sometimes, we're shown, things don't work out.
Our TV critic asked me if I watch the show to be entertained or just in an anthropological way, to see how bad television can be. The truth, I admit guiltily, is a little of both.
We used to put a scarlet "A" on the bodice of an adulterer. Now we push microphones into their face and demand answers for a waiting public.
I'm on the couch, in the audience, waiting for an answer that to some brokenhearted soul who had to know the truth, will never be enough.
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