Trash Buffet: Reality TV Recaps for the Week of September 4

Monica the Medium
On ABC Family's 'Monica the Medium,' Monica can't stop informing strangers that their dead loved ones are trying to talk to them through her. ABC Family/Donald Rager

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.

The span of a TV show's season varies based on format, much like how the human year lasts longer than a dog year or a cat year. Half-hour sitcoms generally run for 22 episodes each season, while hourlong dramas tend to run for 12 or 13 episodes in a season. Though by no means a blanket rule, many half-hour reality programs will only run eight episodes. This happens for the same reason that a distinction between human years and animal years exists, too: Scripted television is capable of sustaining itself for a longer time than most reality television. Notable exceptions to the rule do, of course, exist—it's really no trouble for Fox to crank out 40 hourlong installments of American Idol when the run-time can be padded with mind-jellying banter from living hellspawn Ryan Seacrest and the results of one week's competition fill another hour of programming. But many reality series must recognize the slightness of their own premises and give up the ghost before overstaying their welcome.

Wahlburgers had the good grace to step out this week (Running Wild With Bear Grylls and Naked and Afraid air their finales next week, and Dating Naked follows the week after), and not a moment too soon. Last week's episode was alarmingly inessential, placing Paul and Donnie at Coney Island for a fun day on the pier. But if the stakes last week were low, this week, they're subterranean. In the B-plot, Paul puts on a taste-test competition for his kids to design specialty burgers of their own, and subjects himself to yet another volley of torment from a family that clearly disrespects him to the point of open mockery. The main plot, however, sinks even lower by rehashing the most tired of sitcom tropes and dragging them kicking and screaming into the realm of reality. "Big A," a friend of Marky Mark's from way back, visits him to ask for dating advice. Mark visits Big A's house (which looks like the cave-dwelling of a raving madman, by the way, what with its many stalagmites of luxury clothing gifted to him by Mark and then never worn) and picks out some fresh threads for him to wear on his date, going for a look that says, "I could easily transition to life as an ice cream vendor on Fire Island if this date doesn't work out." Following this, Marky has the bright idea that so many mischievous tertiary characters have had in innumerable sitcoms, and places an earpiece on Big A so that he can place words in his mouth during the date. It goes poorly, obviously, eventually devolving into straight-up maliciousness from Mark as he makes a display of his purported "friend." Happy trails, Wahlburgers.

Quote of the Week: "I met her at a gas station, I was getting gas, she was getting gas. I saw her license plate, and it said 'Missouri.'" —Big A, preemptively telling the "how I met your mother" story about his date and demonstrating a white-hot romantic streak in the process.

We'll check back in with our crew of genital-baring survivalists one last time next week for the reunion wrap-up show, but this week, the remaining men and women of Naked and Afraid XL finally completed the daunting challenge that they took on 40 days earlier. Almost suspiciously (this is a reality program, is it not?), the producers have managed to save the good stuff for the home stretch. Every aspect of the show that regularly holds appeal is in top form; for comic relief, a monkey urinates on Laura and fulfills the wishes of millions. On the gawking-at-the-misfortune-of-others front, Eva throws a tantrum when she learns that EJ and Jeff don't really consider her part of their group, ultimately playing the only-child card. There's even a healthy dose of genuinely pulse-quickening action, when one faction must fend off an attack from an aggressive alligator.

But in the back half of the program, the entire concept coheres and finally makes sense to those viewers uninitiated in the world of extreme survival. When the competitors finally make their way to the extraction point, an expression of pure, unadulterated ecstasy breaks out over their faces. Watching them weather testicle ant-bites, shocks from electric eels and enough hunger to winnow over 70 pounds from EJ's body, it was not always clear what psychological forces could compel a person to put themselves through such a punishing ordeal. Bearing witness to the unparalleled gratification that comes with eluding death made it clear: Making it through something bitter and challenging and even dangerous makes a person feel alive. That goes for survival competitions, though the same could be said for watching an entire season of Naked and Afraid, which is a trial in endurance all its own.

Relatable Moment of the Week: At one point, EJ and Jeff set out on their own and realize they must pass a vast expanse of sunbaked rock on their way to the Orinoco River and salvation. As they tiptoed across the burning rock to minimize the harm to the bottoms of their feet, I thought, Oh, yeah, it's like walking on the sidewalk pavement during summer! I know what that's like. In actuality, I could not even conceive of the exhaustion and agony felt by the men and women onscreen, but for that one moment, I felt like I knew their struggle. I did not. But it felt like I did.

Just as the entertainment value of Running Wild With Bear Grylls threatened to stagnate, the producers inadvertently stumbled upon a wellspring of irony and tragedy. This week's festivities finds Bear in the Welsh highlands with up-and-coming actor Michael B. Jordan, star of such films as Fruitvale Station and the upcoming Rocky spinoff Creed. At the time of shooting, however, the other Michael Jordan was coming up on an entirely different high-profile release, this summer's Fantastic 4 reboot. Because cross-promotion takes high precedence on Running Wild, of course Bear constantly brings up the to-be-released films in an effort to stoke excitement for them. But through a cruel twist of fate, his words embark from a softer and more naive world but arrive in a cold reality where they're far too late. By this point, the folks at home know full well that no, Fantastic 4 will in fact not be a huge blockbuster, barely making back its costs of production. When Bear refers to the film as an "exciting new step" for Jordan, there's an incidental bitchiness about the comment that Bear could not have possibly anticipated. The faint gleam of hope in Jordan's eye is nothing short of heartbreaking. He has no idea how bad his film sucks, and we have no way of warning him. Such is the pain of time's slow march.

Everything else is business as usual, with Jordan enduring the requisite gross-out stunt (eating cooked worms like mini-pretzel sticks) and moment of candor (discussing his friends who "didn't make it out" in terms vague and racially nonspecific enough not to rattle a presumably white-dominated audience). He's a surprisingly tough dude, rarely visibly rankled by any of the insane physical feats Bear expects him to perform. Next week brings quite possibly the most physically honed participant to date, Saints celebrity quarterback Drew Brees. Hopefully, Bear will really put him through his paces. Rappelling into an active volcano, perhaps?

Timeliest Reference of the Week: After happening upon an extremely conveniently shaped formation of rocks that they can use for shelter, Bear Grylls pulls out the A-Team reference and says, "I love it when a plan comes together!" Michael B. Jordan looks at him like he knows exactly how wack he's being.

As Dating Naked approaches its finale and settles into an identifiable rhythm, the happy idiocy of Chris and Kerri begins to suggest some daring, uncomfortable truths about human nature. We've watched them make ill-advised romantic decision after ill-advised romantic decision (ditching Connor, allowing the overtly villainous Fallon to remain on the show for as long as she did) but then, in every situation, they've managed to come to their senses and finally act on their own behalf (Kerri's radical decision to send both men home a couple weeks ago, Chris at long last kicking Fallon to the curb). And yet, each moment of clarity fades as quickly as it comes, and in short order, Chris and Kerri are back to making poor selections. I'm reaching so hard I'll probably strain something, but it's a little reminiscent of Don Draper's long, perilous journey toward redemption on the sorely missed Mad Men. Every week, we dare to invest more hope that the characters onscreen—make no mistake, Chris and Kerri are indeed playing characters—will straighten up and be the people we want them to be. But Chris and Kerri are not the people we want them to be, they're the dummies they are.

This episode introduces two new challengers to which Chris and Kerri take quite a shine, both of whom are worse news than the Daily Post. Upon seeing that newcomer Dan is both 1) very tall and 2) also from south Florida, Kerri falls head over heels, conveniently overlooking his overwhelming dimness and emotional immaturity (though she sure takes notice of it when he has a few too many drinks back at the cabana). Buxom newbie Elissa enchants Chris, who, in classically Chris-ian fashion, can only find positive things to say about her rockin' bod. She's demanding, untrusting, immature and aggressive, demanding to know if Chris has been intimate with other women on this nude reality dating program and getting incensed when he tells her that he has. (At last she phrases her unreasonable interrogation in the most entertaining terms possible, needling him, "Did you feel her vagina?") And then, like self-sabotaging clockwork, Chris and Kerri select these two duds as their keepers for next week.

As regular viewers, we hold out hope that, one week, Chris and Kerri will come to their senses and make the decision we so desperately want them to make. But we're deprived of that satisfaction, left to dare to believe again, another week.

Handiest New Bit of Regionally-Specific Terminology: Kerri, upon learning Dan is from Tampa, refers to him as an S.T.D., or a South Tampa Douchebag. It's an astute and clever term used to refer to a certain kind of unsavory Floridian, but despite recognizing that this man is the human equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease, Kerri has no reservations about hopping on the Dan Express when it comes time to choose keepers. SMDH, Kerri.

Which brings us back to Monica The Medium, which continues to perplex and aggravate in its second week on the air. Though the show wants to cast Monica as a sympathetic figure, its every effort to depict her difficulties backfires spectacularly. Monica is, for lack of a better term, kind of a dick. Her roommates have gotten fed up with Monica's sheltered delusions about the tangibility of money, and so they implore her to go get a regular part-time college job, like all the other students. Monica sees this as a real lark and decides to give it a go, though she's a little worried that her ability to communicate with the dead may make work-life difficult. Incredibly, her self-fulfilling prophecy comes true when she begins to contact a shopper's dead mother in the middle of an interview for a job. Monica actually stops the man interviewing her, walks away from him, and starts speaking to a customer's dead mother. It's incredibly rude to interrupt someone interviewing you for a job, and unthinkably rude to straight-up walk away from an interview. But to then start scaring away a potential customer by speaking to her dead mother and reducing her to tears (see below) is on another level entirely.

For some reason, Monica is under the impression that her gift/curse completely exempts her from any sense of social propriety. No matter how spectacularly inappropriate the occasion, when Monica hears the spirits a-whisperin', she must immediately drop whatever she's doing and go into the whole song-and-dance. She has the gall to outright ask her potential employer if it'd be kosher for her to do full-blown readings while on the job, and her interviewer exercises admirable restraint by gently informing her that actually that's not okay, instead of laughing in her face. More miraculously still, Monica lands the gig at the site of her disastrous interview, a jewelry store. (I suspect the presence of the cameras may have had something to do with her employer's choice to pick her up.) And even after Monica gives the most halfhearted of promises to her employer—something along the lines of, "I'll try not to start speaking to the deceased loved ones of our customers, but no promises…!"—she instantly turns around and does exactly that. In the end, Monica decides that this whole "work" rigamarole is probably more trouble than it's worth, and quits, bringing her spectral pals with her. Hey, you know, holding down the bare minimum of employment to provide yourself with enough money to get by isn't for everyone. It's clearly not for Monica.

Number of Strangers Monica Has Abruptly Brought to the Point of Tears: 6 (to be kept as a running tally throughout the season)