Trash Buffet: Reality TV Recaps for the Week of September 11

Drew Brees
Drew Brees covered in the blood of the alligator he just slaughtered alongside our host Bear Grylls in this week's episode of "Running Wild With Bear Grylls." Next week's guest: the president of the United States, Barack Obama! Duncan Gaudin/NBC

Trash Buffet is a weekly column at Newsweek, a digest covering the world of reality television that spans the wonderful to the weird to the worst. We'll cover five series over the course of a single season, handpicking the highlights and the opposite-of-highlights.

This week sees the sad departure of two of the shows that have heretofore been staples of the Trash Buffet rotation, one going out with a bang, the other with a whimper. Why not start with the positive: Running Wild With Bear Grylls bows out, as any self-respecting reality program should, by saving the good stuff for last. (Though the extent to which this is truly the season finale has been recently called into question, as Bear Grylls recorded a special episode of the program up in Alaska with none other than the leader of the goddamn free world, Barack Obama.)

Factoring in the understanding that an hour of the show only has the entertainment value of its guest, New Orleans Saints golden boy Drew Brees did not inspire great hope for the journey to come. Presumably, he'd give Bear the same courtesy that pro athletes afford the SNL cast members when dropping by as a novelty host and remain good-natured while attempting to form complete sentences and hit his marks.

Except this isn't a test of comedic chops and showbiz instincts but of physical prowess and raw determination, both of which Brees has in spades. He's not especially high on charisma, but he more than makes up for that by demonstrating he is the most competent celebrity survivalist by several miles. While traversing the Camino de Cruces jungle in Panama, Brees opens up about personal struggles both mild (kids on the playground used to make fun of his slight, unobtrusive birthmark, and his mother comforted him by telling him it's where he was "kissed by an angel") and decidedly un-mild (his mother committed suicide in 2009). But he truly shines when making use of his awesome capabilities as someone who's strong and fast for a living.

The highlight scene of the episode—nay, the entire season—comes when Brees assists Bear in straight-up murdering an alligator, and then takes it a step further by splitting the gator down the middle, disemboweling it and smearing its still-warm blood on his arms and face like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. There were long stretches of tedium, but dammit, Running Wild, you'll be missed. If only for planting the seed of Drew Brees, Unfeeling Homicidal Maniac, in the public imagination.

Least Casual Bear Has Ever Sounded About Doing Something Awesome: It appears to take every ounce of willpower Bear has to keep his cool when entreating Brees to "toss the pigskin around." You wouldn't think Bear takes such an interest in American football, but he clearly recognizes that this ostensible leisure activity is really much closer to asking Monet if he wanted to drink a few glasses of vino and do some watercolors.

The big wrapup for Naked and Afraid XL revisits the question previously posed by My Giant Life: What's the point of reunion shows, really? Their stated objectives are pretty straightforward—to check up on the personalities the audience has grown attached to over the preceding weeks and see if they're turned their lives around, how their time on the show affected them, etc.

Call it a bad-faith assumption, but watching it for those reasons feels a little disingenuous, like people who volunteer at soup kitchens because they claim they want to make the world a warmer place and not to temporarily assuage a permanent, gnawing guilt. The real lure of the reunion show as a form is that it places the contestants that we've known only in the context of the show back in the safe bosom of the real world and allows us to see how they function as regular citizens. Think of it like Schrödinger's crazy person: Until this point, we've observed the contestants' behaviors in the pressure cooker that is the punishing jungle of Colombia, but we've never seen how they act regularly. There's been no control group in this experiment, no baseline of normalcy against which we might measure wilderness insanity—until now.

Perhaps just as the camera is said to add 10 pounds, it also subtracts reason and restraint. Even under the well-lit multi-cam setup of the reunion show, the contestants revert to the hair-trigger ways shown during the competition. Honora feels no compunction whatsoever for throwing her teammates' gear into the river, Chris still detests Honora, Shane's still on the verge of a complete outburst at any moment. I don't want to make any bold claims without full substantiation, but it's almost as if the casting directors deliberately find people with outsized personalities who are liable to cause a big scene on camera.

Or maybe the chicken comes before the egg and the opportunity to be seen encourages the contestants to act more memorably crazy, in the hopes that a spinoff may come of it. The elements conspiring to create the intoxicating nonreality of reality television remain a mystery, but at least the next vessel of our investigation on that topic will be something more diverting than Naked and Afraid XL.

Backdoor Pilot of the Week: The term "backdoor pilot" refers to an episode of a long-running TV show that informally acts as a trial run for a spinoff series. (The episode of The Office in which Dwight returns to his family farm and reunites with his kooky relatives, for instance, was testing the waters for a Dwight-centric spinoff called The Farm that was not to be.) The gem in the reunion program that shines the brightest may be the footage in which we hear from the producers and crew members. This season, unREAL proved that compelling drama goes on behind the scenes of reality programs, albeit in a scripted way. Why not go all in on the metatextual commentary and mount a reality show that takes place behind the scenes of a real, existent reality show? Imagine bearing witness to the barely cloaked animosity between the American Idol judges and Ryan Seacrest? I'd watch that!

Only three episodes in and it appears that the producers of Monica the Medium have already realized that Monica just may be the principal antagonist of the show. The editors seem to have abandoned all pretense of privileging Monica's point of view in their cuts, instead craftily framing certain scenes from the perspective of Monica's roommates, the voices of reason on a show dominated by charlatanism and irrationality.

I'm not referring to doubts over the veracity of Monica's superpowers (though the final-cut privileges held by the producers make taking Monica's readings seriously prohibitively difficult), but rather doubts over her viability as a central figure for the show. She's almost pathologically inconsiderate, monopolizing the shared living room so that she may meet with clients for a reading, and then having the gall to request that her roomies look after her pipsqueak pooch as she does her work. Not to mention the sheer lack of tact when it comes to contacting the spirits; Monica meets with a couple for a prearranged reading—an appropriate venue for such activities!—but ambushes a Craigslist couch retailer and a nurse at a hospital with her unsolicited readings. Her communications with the dead inspire, chiefly, confusion and fearfulness.

As it finds a villain in chronically rude Monica, the show also finds a hero in Monica's bestie, Krista. Monica introduces the audience to Krista via a voice-over during a big night out on the town, explaining how her pointed incisors have a way of endearing her to men. Krista's cute and down-to-earth, and, as demonstrated during the scene where she and Monica's roommates go shopping with money granted to them by Monica (somehow?) and dish about the house's most annoying resident, she's got her head on straight. As if that wasn't enough, she's got compelling internal drama too! During a girl-talk sesh with her pals, Krista reveals that she stuffed her brassiere during junior high and was nearly mortified when tissue paper fell out of her shirt during gym class. Tragedy, hope, weird teeth—where's her TV show?

Number of Strangers Monica Has Abruptly Brought to the Point of Tears: 11 (to be kept as a running tally throughout the season)

Dating Naked finally reaches its grand finale next week, and where lesser shows might have slowed their roll in anticipation of a big finish, our favorite nudist dating competition has kicked into overdrive. This week's installment produced two new gems in Tinabelle and Chase. Tinabelle introduces herself as "a pop artist from California, I write music, I'm a dancer," which is almost as glaring a red flag as being named Tinabelle. She obliges Chris and sings a few bars of one of her original compositions, and accomplishes that which I once believed impossible by trumping Michael's nauseating serenade from two weeks ago. She sounds like Christina Aguilera but more so—which is to say, worse. She's no match for Chase, though, an upstanding fellow who frightens Kerri with his massive penis. His spectacular endowment isn't just a favor from the Creator, however you may define him; Chase sells penis pumps for a living, and you better believe that he skims a little off the top for himself. A surprising revelation for sure, and yet not nearly as surprising as Chase's decision to give a live demo of the product during a lull in the action. For its many, many faults, at least Dating Naked has granted us the indelible image of a grown man operating a penis pump on basic cable.

More than that, Dating Naked is bumping up against its own premise. The final episode comes down to a choice between Chris and Kerri, and of course they'll choose each another after nine weeks of familiarity and shared experiences. The deck has been unfairly stacked in their favor; how could any newcomer possibly hope to compare to the feelings that have had time to grow and solidify? Besides, Kerri and Chris have already gone through the traumatic ordeal of appearing on Dating Naked, a grueling marathon that irreversibly bonds people together, kind of like how survivors of hostage situations often feel they can really relate only to their fellow hostages. Maybe the show's got a big surprise in store for its bow-out, but for now, the writing appears to be on the wall.

Quote of the Week: "Do you believe everything happens for a reason?"—Tinabelle, to Chris, without a trace of irony.

Paranormal Witness

With Naked and Afraid now safely in our rearview, we warmly welcome the newest member of the Trash Buffet family, Syfy's Paranormal Witness. The general premise of the show leans much harder on the "fiction" side of the science fiction spectrum, dramatically re-enacting firsthand accounts from those unlucky souls who have had run-ins with the occult, interlaced with talking-head segments from the witnesses. The show is essentially an unquestioning acceptance of whatever nonsense comes from the guest-of-the-week as fact, and then shot so that there's completely faked evidence to back it up.

Pretty shameful move, and it's not especially helpful to turn no critical eye whatsoever toward these reports of monsters as realer than real, but damn if it isn't entertaining. Don't get it twisted—it's not as if the admittedly well-produced re-enactments will actually send chills up any viewer's spine. But within this episode of Paranormal Witness (the third installment of the fourth season, but better late than never, right?) lurks a terror far more insidious than any supernatural monstrosity.

This installment centers on the Cranmer family, an all-too-real clan hailing from Brentwood, Pennsylvania. Patriarch Bob Cranmer, a good ol' boy type with a history in the military and politics, tells the tale of a series of encounters in his former home with a pair of spectral tormentors: a nefarious abortionist who lived on the property during Colonial times and the biblical demon Molech that he worshipped. Molech was a dark god idolized by the Canaanites, a terrible behemoth to whom freshly slaughtered babies were routinely fed in order to stoke the ever-burning fire within him. Cranmer does not hesitate to draw the line between the alleged child murder that is abortion and the sacrifices made to Molech. It is at this point that I became somewhat curious about Cranmer's background.

Simple interest about which office Cranmer held compelled me to run a quick Google search of the man's name, and that cursory bit of research unearthed a vein of insanity beyond anyone's anticipation. Turns out that Paranormal Witness does not constitute Cranmer's first instance speaking out against the Molech. His notoriously haunted domicile was featured on Discovery Channel's The Exorcist Files in 2011, and then Cranmer capitalized on the nightmare he just wanted to put behind him by writing a whole book about it in 2014, The Demon of Brownsville Road. The little cottage industry that Cranmer's erected around this load of phooey is unsavory, but his story gets weirder.

Though the show never takes up Cranmer's domestic circumstances as its subject specifically, the viewers get disturbing glimpses at a profoundly broken home regardless. The afflictions that the Cranmer family claim to have experienced don't sound especially out of the ordinary; the mother recalls how she has been feeling a marked loss of energy, a decreased interest in her usual hobbies and overall feelings of hopelessness, while son Bobby Jr. was acting out and expressing hostility toward his parents. (There's the traditional stuff-inexplicably-moved paranormal activity as well, but the emotional symptoms merit special attention for reasons that should be obvious.)

Cranmer's 20-year-old daughter was not on the scene when the incidents began but moved back in with her parents mid-haunting after giving birth to a son of her own. None of the family's afflictions sound particularly demonic. Bobby Jr.'s behavior would be perfectly normal for a boy who had been punched in the face by his father, which is exactly what happened in 2003, three full years before Cranmer finally rid his home of unwelcome ghosts. Cranmer was arrested for simple assault on his son, claiming upon his arrest that he had struck Bobby Jr. once in an act of self-defense. The affidavit from the officer who intervened (summoned with a 911 call from Cranmer's 14-year-old son, by the way) tells a decidedly different story, explaining that Bobby Jr. had wounds to his hands, arms, back and face and was "in a state of semiconsciousness to the degree that he could not reply to my questioning." The mother's demonic symptoms sound suspiciously similar to depression, an entirely reasonable response to a household climate of alleged abuse.

Now I'm not saying that Bob Cranmer confabulated a highly lucrative cock-and-bull story about a satanic demon and his abortionist cohort-in-evil as a cover-up for his alarming family problems...or am I saying that? Syfy accidentally aired the darkest family drama of the year. May every forthcoming episode of Paranormal Witness be as bizarre as this one, albeit less deeply tragic.

Most Tasteful Directorial Flourish of the Week: Paranormal Witness does not trust its viewers to ascertain what might be happening on the screen at any given moment, so the show's producers provide helpful subtitles like "NOW BOBBY JNR IS BEING TERRORIZED BY AN EVIL SPIRIT." The titles makes it mercifully easy to tune out the garbage spilling forth from Cranmer's puckered mouth-hole.

Trash Buffet: Reality TV Recaps for the Week of September 11 | Culture