Tom Shales's TV Preview of MTV's 'The Phone'

MTV's reality game show "The Phone" sends contestants on a ludicrous and dangerous kind of treasure hunt.
MTV's reality game show "The Phone" sends contestants on a ludicrous and dangerous kind of treasure hunt. (Mtv)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The age of irony isn't over yet. One of the contestants on "The Phone," an irritating MTV reality romp premiering tonight, is named "Joel Perfect." Boy, is he on the wrong program! To call "The Phone" merely imperfect would be the gentlest possible charge that anyone could ever levy. Although, it is perfect in certain sorts of ways -- you know: perfectly awful, perfectly horrid, perfectly insane, and so on.

The surprising and disappointing thing about "Phone" is that one of its executive producers is Justin Timberlake, following in the stumble-bumbling footsteps of antic actor Ashton Kutcher. Both are appealing young stars who decided they wanted to produce trash television (in Kutcher's case, "Punk'd," among others) and thereby get rich quicker. Today's Young Hollywoodians aren't particularly political, rebellious or idealistic; they just want to sock away as much cash as they can by whatever disreputable means possible.

"Phone" is a formulaic game show featuring four contestants -- two teams of two per episode -- who receive instructions over cellphones for a kind of treasure hunt, then proceed to run all over the city -- Seattle in the premiere -- hoping to avoid such ghastly catastrophes as disfiguring accidents or painful, crippling deaths. Really? Well not exactly, and yet promos for the show try to make it sound as though the stakes include not just a $50,000 grand prize for the winners but potentially fatal injury to those who dare to fail.

As it happens, young Mr. Perfect's imperfections include a lifelong fear of heights, so naturally he's the one assigned to go crawling about some 520 feet above the ground on the uppermost ledge of Seattle's famous Space Needle -- the part that looks like a lampshade. "I'm really scared right now," Perfect says as microphones record his desperate utterances.

The young man is secured by a rope designed to keep him from falling. Even so, viewers are titillated with the prospect that Perfect will become perfectly terrified and somehow tumble half-a-thousand feet to his death. It's apparently no longer enough to see contestants set themselves up for embarrassment, disgrace or humiliation; they have to face potential death and dismemberment as well.

MTV calls "Phone" a "groundbreaking game show whose blend of reality and cinematic action-adventure pulls its participants out of their everyday lives and . . . into a high-stakes labyrinth of engagement, suspense and intrigue." Oh baloney. It's merely another of TV's high-concept retreads, combining elements of "The Amazing Race" (the genre's finest effort) and NBC's ghastly travesty "Fear Factor," so far the worst game show ever aired by an American television network.

Forcing a man who has acrophobia to dangle from the top of a tower is pure sadism, or maybe impure, but sadism just the same. So, for that matter -- if on a less reckless, threatening level -- is creating a TV show that features the persistent and insistent ringing of telephones over and over, at punishing length, throughout the hour. At least the producers could have doled out some colorful ring tones to the contestants so we would have something less jarring and annoying to listen to.

The contestants are generally a dull lot, though their names are, like Perfect's, on the colorful side -- Delvaughn Tinned (pronounced Tinn-ed), for instance, and cute little pastry chef Meena Mathis.

MTV is committed to airing six episodes of "Phone," including tonight's, as part of what seems like the 237th reconfiguration of the network. It may be evolving into a crazy mixed-up copy of the Fox Reality Channel -- but without Fox's dignity and class. Music videos, once the channel's distinguishing feature, are now tucked away into remote crevices and wee-hour secluded hideaways -- which is really where claptrap like "The Phone" ought to be stashed.

The Phone (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on MTV.

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