Trash Buffet: Reality TV Recaps for the Week of October 16

Sister Wives
The Brown family at the courthouse on TLC's "Sister Wives." TLC

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.

As much delight as this writer may have taken in watching Andrew Zimmern choke down food that looked like it came from the props department of a low-budget horror movie, it turns out that there's really only so much cultural commentary to offer on the subject of Bizarre Foods. Seeing a man eat what I imagine comes out after a woman gives birth was slightly comforting in that it reminded the viewers at home that they'll never have to do that, but even so, there are more profound corners of the human experience that merit Trash Buffet's attentions.

And with that: a TV show about people going on Tinder! The deliciously named Love at First Swipe essentially reimagines What Not to Wear as What Not to Do on Your Dating Profile. The presence of host Clinton Kelly reinforces that comparison, though he's joined here by "online-dating guru" (where does one get a master's in online-dating consulting, I wonder?) Devyn Simone. Their process is simple. Step 1: Make fun of someone's bad Tinder profile. Step 2: Assure the subject that they're only making fun because they care, which, seeing as they've never met this person before, rings a bit hollow. Step 3: "Fix" the subject and his or her dating profile. It turns out that the line between helping someone maximize their marketability online and suggesting that they need to change who they are in order to find love is troublingly blurry. This week, Clinton and Devyn take on booking agent Lynette as a charity case, and immediately go to work on altering the fundamental pillars of the woman's style.

Lynette is the proud owner of more than 50 different wigs, which she swaps out to match her mood as if they were shoes. There's certainly nothing wrong with wearing wigs; if Nicki Minaj has taught us anything, it's the raw power that can come with a stylish wig. Lynette also mentions that it's not easy to achieve the sleek, voluminous shine she desires with her natural hair, and yet none of this stops the Tinder Police from pinning Lynette's struggle to find a man of substance on the wigs. Lynette wants herself a new kind of man, someone who's mature and prepared to get serious. But in the words of Clinton and Devyn, Lynette's wigs make her look "like a 25-year-old." The rest of the episode goes as one might predict, with Lynette receiving a fabulous makeover and being sent out the door on her way to a fulfilling relationship. She seems perfectly happy, but the aftertaste is bitter.

Most Ingenious Metric for Success: As a way of measuring Lynette's appeal, they show her profile to an unseen panel of 100 men before and after the big makeover. I can only imagine this trial system was set up before Amy Schumer's 12 Angry Men parody ran on TV.

The opening narration of Monica the Medium lays out the show's premise in broadly simplistic terms. She's Monica, your average college undergrad navigating the travails of academics, self-sufficiency and dating. Oh yeah—and she can talk to dead people! The intro sequence spells out a slice-of-life sort of sitcom, wherein a camera crew trails an interesting character and plainly chronicles his or her ca-razy life. But Monica the Medium becomes a far more entertaining and rewarding program when we divorce the content from the form and think of it not as another reality TV show but as a difficult character study of a destructive young woman devoid of self-awareness. Monica Ten-Kate is built on the sort of internal contradictions that provide fodder for critically acclaimed indie pictures. She's a classic antihero, defiantly rejecting the deficiencies of her own personality and retreating to a reality of her own creation.

There are big, big problems in Monica's life. Over the course of this season, we've met her father, who does not believe in her; we've met her siblings, who are aggravated with her; and, this week, we check back in with Monica's long-suffering friends as the whole gang travels for a getaway in the Poconos. They don't seem especially fond of Monica, openly mocking her when she volunteers to clean up the house due to her history of shirking chores. But there's something more pressing underneath their playful gal-pal ovary-busting. Monica's incapable of remaining engaged in the moment, her mind always drifting off elsewhere, finding refuge in her readings. Whenever things start to get a little heated in Monica's life, suddenly Spirit comes a-calling. It's all extremely convenient, and when Monica's bestie Christa has a bit of an emotional breakdown and confronts her about what an undependable person she has been, Monica reveals the depths of her self-delusion. Her insistence upon communing with Spirit goes beyond an overcommitment to her "work," as she calls it. In fixating upon Spirit, she's depriving herself of the actual experience of living life.

Number of Strangers Monica Has Abruptly Brought to the Point of Tears: 31 (to be kept as a running tally throughout the season)

Syfy's Paranormal Witness also zags where traditional reality television zigs, throwing genre for a loop and not in a good way. Paranormal Witness is a cheapo horror movie that re-examines the properties of low-budget filmmaking in dispiriting ways. Historically, the obstruction of a shoestring budget has forced horror filmmakers to get more crafty and resourceful in their methods. Roger Corman was legendarily capable of slapping together a feature film in a week's time with barely any cash at his disposal. With jerry-rigged effects and cut corners exposing the seams in the film and creating a new fear all its own, most horror films at this level at least amount to interesting curios.

It's abundantly clear that any given episode of Paranormal Witness was funded with couch change, but that cheapness manifests itself in decidedly less colorful ways. Where cheap horror is usually elevated by creativity or rickety charm, Paranormal Witness looks charmlessly amateurish and sanitized. The camera wavers very slightly, the clear handiwork of someone unsteadily holding the equipment, but not with the purposeful aggression of a handheld shot. It's distracting and completely fights the aesthetic that the producers hope to pinpoint with this program. The effects are flimsy but simultaneously devoid of personality. The team of Paranormal Witness manages to slash and burn the weird jungle of low-budget horror and pave over it with asphalt, leaving empty expanses where lush oddities once thrived.

This week's installment, for instance, regurgitates some familiar horror tropes but does so without any charisma. Christi and her family move into a new house after an extended stint in a rental following Christi's stroke. On a CPAP machine and getting back in the game of life, Christi starts to fear for her safety when suspicious and inexplicable things happen around her new home. While taking a bath, the faucet begins spewing raw sewage. (Her words: "It was dirty, disgusting, chunky, and it was all around me.") She and her children see the standard-issue creepy child apparition lurking around the house, and when they consult a "professional" they learn that their house was apparently built on an Indian burial ground. Besides contributing to the troublesome cinematic tradition of portraying Native American peoples as a conduit between the human plane and the spirit world, a backward-minded act of cultural reduction, it's simply hacky storytelling. If you're gonna tell a ghost story, at least try a little imagination.

Best Introductory Title Card of the Week: "Matt is being hunted by something…or someone."

When we started out with Suddenly Royal, would-be monarch David Howe was something of a lovable buffoon, a jolly object of well-mannered derision from the audience and the camera alike, as the show fixated on his many intercultural foibles. His build invited this characterization as well, his spiky haircut and bristly goatee lending him the screen presence of a less sexually appealing Guy Fieri. But as the season has progressed and the sincerity of Howe's rich family life has taken shape, he increasingly looks like a guy who has got it all figured out. He and his wife count on each other for strength and respect, and their daughter, strange as her parents may be, was clearly raised in a loving environment. He moves through life with the happy self-assurance of a Buddhist figure, able to find contentedness in any situation with good-natured ease. He appears to have found his definition of happiness, and that alone might make him a character worth sympathizing with and rooting for.

The show takes on a slightly tragic tinge as Howe's quest to claim the throne he believes belongs rightfully to him continues to unravel. Howe's frustrated by how powerless he feels; as an unofficial monarch, he can't really do any kingly things to earn the respect of his people, and he needs the respect of his people to make his regal status official. It's a tricky catch-22, and viewers should want Howe to be able to overcome it. Even more misfortune befalls Howe in this hour, as he finally locks down gainful employment at a radio station to steady his family until he can claim his crown and the presumed heaps of money that come with it. You can practically see the light leaving his eyes when his immediate superior informs him that he'll be working in sales for the station, and not jockeying his own show. There's something markedly childish about him, and so it stings when the world punctures his force field of positivity. Currently, the future of the Howe family on the Isle of Man appears to be in jeopardy, but it feels safe to assume that TLC wouldn't string the audience along for an entire season just to pull the carrot away when the series is getting good.

Royal Family Fun Fact of the Week: Matriarch Pam confesses her passion for fire dancing, bringing her new proper-English friends to a be-in of some sort where she's able to show off her talent for swinging flaming poi. It looks like a scene cut from a Wachowski siblings film that never was.

On Sister Wives, as his personal life continues to crumble all around him (this week's mortifying revelation, courtesy of the most disreputable tabloids on the Stop & Shop checkout rack: Meri was catfished—by a woman!), Kody takes a moment of repose to spend time with his daughters. All five of them. After having amply demonstrated that he lacks the necessary emotional apparatuses to be the husband his wives need, he goes on to illustrate his incompetence as a father as well. Kody hasn't the slightest idea how to care for five young girls of varying ages, mostly failing to keep up with their inexhaustible energy. In a gesture of goodwill toward his lovely daughters, Kody brings them to a vacation house in Southern California, complete with trips to the beach and amusement parks. Kody shows his hand early on when he brings the girls to the grocery store to get food for the coming week and buys a comically excessive amount of rations for each individual girl. Kody himself is barely capable of articulating his own inability to relate to these girls, stammering about differences in their attitudes toward things (this comes unsettlingly close to an outright gender bias). The show makes an unintended allusion to Kramer vs. Kramer when Kody flounders in his efforts to prepare breakfast for his offspring just as Dustin Hoffman did for his child during the divorce proceedings in the film.

Which harks back to the turbulence on the home front. The advertisements for next week suggest that Robyn's got pregnancy-big news, and there's the matter of last week's poignant reunion with Meri. Kody's repose with his daughters is only forestalling a series of necessary, uncomfortable conversations he can't avoid having for much longer.

Quote of the Week: "I want it comin' up smooth, easy and cold." —Kody, describing how he prefers vomiting up ice cream over any other food

Trash Buffet: Reality TV Recaps for the Week of October 16 | Culture