'One Ocean View': Six Degrees of Stuporation

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006; C01

Now you, too, can hypnotize your friends, and without all the bother of dangling pocket watches in their faces and murmuring, "You're getting sleepy, very sleepy." Forget all that. Just invite them over to watch "One Ocean View" on ABC. They'll get sleepy, all right.

The risk is you'll all end up in a stuporous state, waking in the middle of the night and wondering what channel you're on. And what planet.

The concept couldn't be simpler, though ABC programmers may wish it could: Do a show like MTV's "The Real World" -- plop a bunch of strange young strangers into a big house and record what happens with peekaboo cameras. The gimmick or the problem here is that the young strangers come off as such familiar cliches that it's hard to believe they haven't been fabricated, at least in part, by a professional writer or two.

In tonight's premiere (at 10 on Channel 7), viewers will quickly discover the fatal flaw in this latest "reality" variation: The participants are pathologically boring; even the perky cutie-pies who introduce themselves as twins Miki and Radha. ABC's Web site identifies the participants in such generic ways ("businesswoman," "broker," "lawyer") that they do seem to have come from Central Casting rather from that mean old real world out there. For years, game shows that originated in New York featured contestants who were identified as waiters and grad students and such; not mentioned was that the contestants were also part-time actors, perhaps acting students. Actors made ideal contestants because they knew what the producers expected of them.

Now ABC unveils a reality show stocked with unreal real people who also seem to know, all too well, how the characters on these programs are expected to act. Whether some of them are part-time professional or aspiring actors we do not know, but tell-tale signs suggest a certain level of phoniness afoot. They seem less like real people than like actors hired to play real people -- all of them in-their-twenties, in-your-face, cliche-spouting helium-heads who unite to share a house on Fire Island, N.Y., for the summer.

It's hard to know how to categorize this hapless, unhappy hybrid: unreal realism? Virtual virtuality (with bits of virtual virtue thrown in)? Make-believe make-believe? The word "reality" has been punched, stretched and twisted so much by television that it barely has any meaning left, and this show is another couple of cosmic notches away from whatever realism was when it was still at least 50 percent real.

The next cosmic notch, perhaps: Hire actors to play actors pretending to be real people in a show about, uhh, real actors playing real people. No matter what you do to the format, it's likely to come out as the same show: a bunch of vapid losers sitting around talking about "relationships" and "hooking up" and about what they plan to do with the rest of their lives.

A warning bell is sounded early -- during the opening sequence, in fact, when one of the women in the cast describes in fewer than 25 words each -- words that sound as if they were at least influenced by the work of a professional TV writer -- what her roommates are like.

"Mary designs handbags," for instance. "What a cool chick!" Cooler even than your average handbag designer? Apparently. A "gym franchise owner" named K.J. is "intense, but one of the coolest guys you'll ever meet," whereas lovely little Lisa is "shy but -- hello?! Check out her body!"

What else is there to check out? It was a bit daring of the producers to include only two pretty blondes among the cast members (Heather, ABC's Web site says, is a "former brunette"), but they might have tried a little harder to make the group more of a racial, religious and social cross-section, a melting pot in miniature. As constituted now, the cast members come off as clones of clones of clones. Of clones. Of -- well, you know.

"This place is amazing," says one of the girls upon entering the summer rental. This kid is easily amazed. One member of the group, though, is amazing -- in a deplorable sort of way. Either Zack or Usman -- they're hard to tell apart, at least at first -- is talking about his beauty regimen and how he keeps himself such a hottie.

"I get better looking every day," says the young man, taking the power of positive thinking to a dreadful extreme. "I got better looking the day before, so every day is the best day of my life."

They know what they want.

"I want to find somebody and start working on a relationship," one young man says. Maybe he should start working on a personality first. Even a mere identity would do.

When one randy lad learns that the young woman he's talking to runs a dating service, he's so pleased that he risks using up all the requisite cliches of youthspeak at once: "Get out of here! No way! That's crazy! That's cool!"

You're stupid! Shut up!

When in doubt, and in lieu of transitions, the director cuts to shots of the sea -- a gull peering down with seeming (and justifiable) disapproval, or kids playing with a Frisbee, or members of our cast playing volleyball. Also raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens . . . (we'd go on but we'd only get sued by the copyright owner).

Life would seem fair, at least relatively, if a derivative series like this earned a rating of precisely zero, if audience membership found that there's absolutely nobody out there watching. But some people are attracted to even the most seemingly wretched shows, with reality soap operas usually fulfilling one important promise: offering up characters that viewers can easily and quickly learn to hate.

The female appeal of "One Ocean View" seems to lie in the way the men get more attention from the filmmakers, each one representing, to some degree, a trait to be avoided. Good actors might have fun with such overdrawn stereotypes, but the alien creatures on this show are hampered by a contagious lack of conviction. Even they don't seem to believe they're who they say they are.

In olden days of newspapering, journalists had to write on much-detested six-ply typing paper. Each little packet, stuffed into the typewriter, produced an original and five copies. One trouble among many was that by the time you got to the fifth copy, the letters were fuzzy and unreadable and the point of the story had somehow grown vague. That's the case of "One Ocean View." It's the fifth copy of six-ply television. You have to squint even to see an image there, and it's just not worth the effort.

One Ocean View (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 7.

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