“Single Ladies,” a new VH1 soap opera premiering Monday night, exists in a gold-flecked nightmare version of Atlanta, where life can be winnowed down to the lyrics of assertive pop songs and a series of upscale, urban cliches. It’s all champagne fountains, micro-miniskirts and cuisine served by, as one showoff suitor tells a single lady, “my personal four-star chef.” In this world, when a sister is feeling down (and/or stressed-out about trying to launch her fancy dress boutique of dis-tinc-tion), nothing can cheer her up as much as signing the lease on a new Jaguar.
That sort of high-end, bougie consumer nonsense is, I guess, part of the escapism offered by “Single Ladies,” which borrows its title from the fully charred Beyonce hit and the equally overdone idea that female viewers are still (still!) waiting to exhale, waiting for Mr. Big, waiting for the next everything-must-go stampede on low-cut wedding dresses.
This is a series for people who found “Sex and the City” too quick-witted and “The Wendy Williams Show” too intellectually stimulating. It’s the TV equivalent of a beach read with no words. Even if “Single Ladies” can be enjoyed in some basic brainless way (and even though it’s safely sequestered on VH1, where standards are aggressively low), there’s something steadfastly embarrassing about it.
The women seem to be operating from a false sense of empowerment, a soulfulness that unfortunately reads as soullessness. The men all talk like that grandiloquently suave Old Spice spokesman who rides his stallion shirtless. “Single Ladies” dares the more sheltered among us to ask: “Are there people who really look and talk like this?”
Yes, and they’re on a show called “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” which indeed makes “Single Ladies” seem redundant and strangely off-key — to say nothing of how it further advances depressing stereotypes of the black upper-middle class. Again we see popular culture’s bad habit of validating minorities by reaching for their lowest common denominators. Here, people are judged by outdated estimations of what used to be known as bling.
Executive-produced by Queen Latifah, who once upon a time seemed to know better, the two-hour launch of “Single Ladies” tosses uncertainly between a serious attempt at a relationship drama and a pathetic stab at . . . camp, I suppose? It’s about three women (their group will expand to four in a couple of episodes) trying to figure out what they want from relationships. Val (Stacey Dash) has just been dumped by her longtime beau after she demanded that he — altogether now — “put a ring on it.” (He declines.)
Val’s best friend, Keisha (LisaRaye McCoy), is a professional poker player who, despite her advanced age, still sometimes appears as an underclad vixen in hip-hop videos. When she shows up for her latest shoot in a new Cam’ron video, she is handed a pink business suit and informed that she’s playing an older, but still trampy, woman. (Oh, the indignity.) Lastly, there is April (Charity Shea), the token white friend, a platinum blonde who has married the dream black man — only she’s cheating on him with Atlanta’s sexy-smooth mayor (played by rapper Common).
Enduring two hours of terrible writing and acting would be bad enough, but there is something else: “Single Ladies” is astonishingly lacking a moral center that should be the subtext of even the most tawdry fiction. I’m not talking about the bed-hopping, the cheating, the conspicuous consumption and, in Keisha’s case, the theft of a diamond-encrusted watch from the Cam’ron video shoot. I was struck more by how easily the three women tell lies to protect one another, in a sort of gender-reversed version of the “bros before hos” rule: Did you steal that watch? (No, Keisha lies.) Are you sleeping with the mayor? (No, April lies.) Did you lie to me about my wife’s cheating? (No, stammers Val.) There’s no one to root for here; everyone is ethically unctuous.
“You a grown-ass woman,” Val’s boyfriend reminds her, as he’s about to walk out. That’s exactly what I was thinking, watching “Single Ladies”: The two lead actresses are in their 40s, dressed like they’re in their 20s, saddled with the impulse-control issues of preteens. This is supposed to be a show about adults? For adults?
Bravo’s new competition show, “Platinum Hit,” also premiering Monday night, resolutely adheres to the network’s format for such endeavors, a la “Project Runway” and “Top Chef”: Eleven amateur singer-songwriters compete to write the perfect pop song while a panel of displeased judges repeatedly finds fault with their efforts.
As with last summer’s visuals-centered Bravo series “Work of Art,” “Platinum Hit” concerns itself with an aurally subjective treasure hunt for the elusive catchy hook. At first, the show seems like a welcome antidote to the oversupply of television’s singing competitions, in that it demands from contestants a wholly original pop song instead of the karaoke-style aping of old hits. But very quickly “Platinum Hit” demonstrates just how tiresome Bravo’s competition shows have become.
Given 30 minutes to come up with a chorus for a song about Los Angeles (where the competition takes place), the would-be songwriters wanly proffer the usual buskerlike strummings of nebulous-sounding folkie angst. One young man unwittingly lands on a rip-off of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” for which he is quickly chastised by the show’s hosts, former “American Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi and pop singer Jewel.
Another contestant, Sonyae, growls out a soulful refrain for a song she calls “Love It or Hate It,” which to my ears sounded a bit too like that bizarre viral video of the Kelly Family singers doing “Ain’t Gonna Pee-Pee My Bed Tonight.”
Perhaps the show should be called “Do You Hear What I Hear?” DioGuardi praises Sonyae for her originality, a judgment the other contestants gape at in disbelief. Right about here, the whole enterprise hits the predictable, clunky note we’ve heard before in these competition shows. For their next challenge, they should all have to write a song called “I’m Not Here to Make Friends.”
(two-hour premiere) begins Monday at 9 p.m. on VH1.
(one hour) begins Monday at 10 p.m. on Bravo.