Oh, but don’t we just love to hurl our maidens into the volcano?

You can find this ancient ritual just about anywhere on cable’s reality-heavy dial, but E! has always been quite seismically active in this regard, from its epic Kardashiphilia to its devoted chronicling of Hugh Hefner’s multiple consorts. And although its new series, “Scouted,” gives the first impression of merely being a show about models, it turns out to be a watchable session of human sacrifice lite. Instead of the usual competition trope (set in stone by “America’s Next Top Model,” in which aspiring fashion models face off in a series of challenges), “Scouted,” which premieres Monday night, is more interested in the primordial stage of supermodeling.

It believes strongly in the ancient lore of the undiscovered pretty girl, slaving away in the small-town Dairy Queen one minute and, soon enough, strutting the runway in next spring’s couture. “Scouted” is all about the allure of fresh prey — and the thrill of discovery.

In the show, a handful of expert modeling agency scouts — who are based in Texas, Northern California, Utah and Virginia — prowl around campuses and malls looking for that certain something. If these scouts were middle-age men driving vans, they’d be arrested. But because this is in the name of fashion, it’s all somehow okay.

“Scouted” correctly assumes that we all know (or should know) that a potential runway and magazine model hardly fits conventional cheerleader notions of beauty. She is a combination of gawky, tall, cheekbony, trouble-toothed, ethnically mingled — it may defy logic, but there she is, the ideal “girl,” undeniably magnificent and completely raw. Let us now ruin her life and pump up her delusions by sending her to New York.

In the premiere, a Dallas 15-year-old named Gillian persuades her mother to take her on a cattle call before the renowned modeling scout Page Parkes. Meanwhile, in California, another scout named Kristen Kotik is grooming a strikingly lithe young woman named Jennifer — which means also having to deal with Jennifer’s manipulative stage mom, Chanel. “Scouted” assembles all this into a serviceable narrative of hopes and dreams, but because it’s reality TV, you can’t be at all sure how much of it is true.

Both Gillian and Jennifer are sent by their respective scouts to New York, where they meet with a team of creative directors, mentors and consultants affiliated with a modeling agency called One. It’s remarkable how unchanged the modeling industry comes across in 2011, still appearing to function just as it has in cheap movies and TV dramas of yore. It’s still about glossy head shots, portfolio books and giant fans blowing hair in a certain direction while an unctuous photographer coaxes pouts and looks of cool indifference from the subjects.

Although “Scouted” tries gamely to preoccupy itself with the innermost thoughts and anxieties of its young aspirants, a viewer will be immediately distracted by how unattractive and flat-out haggard the people who work in the modeling industry appear to be. If this was “Scouted’s” unstated goal all along, then it is an irony well played. It seems the more frightening you’ve made yourself look (and the more you appear to have had your cosmetic surgery performed by a chimpanzee on Red Bull), the more of an expert on beauty you become.

In New York, the sacrificial virgin metaphor plods on as Gillian and Jennifer are poked, inspected and revamped by an array of women and men who each have the look of the embalmed and who regard “the girls” the same way carrion crows circle a motionless doe lying on a freeway embankment. These perfectly pretty young women are nevertheless flawed, we learn: The hair is wrong. She “needs to lose her baby fat.” And so on.

“Scouted” entices you into its prolonged fussing over looks, and yet, whether it means to or not, the show becomes a revealing confirmation that how we talk and treat others says as much (if not more) about our personal sense of style. The scouts and consultants are all seen as snippy, dismissive, fake and ultimately unhappy. It’s heartbreaking to watch them charm these young women and their parents into a world that seems so harried and glum.

When this all culminates in a day-long photo session, one of the agency consultants stiffly complains that Jennifer is posing like someone pretending to be a fashion model, “like she’s been watching ‘Top Model’ all her life.”

Well, gee, whose fault is that?


(one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on E!