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In the old days people would scrape together their nickels and dimes to visit the circus or carnival when it blew into town. Boasting a dizzying array of wonders, one of the prime attractions of this rural Babylon was the side show.


The side show featured all kinds of what P.T. Barnum called “human curiosities” — the freaks and geeks of the 19th century — the Fat Lady, the Strong Man, the Dog-faced boy, the diminutive Dwarf.


Well, step right up, ladies and gentlemen, all that grandeur is still here in the form of TV’s reality shows, and it doesn’t cost one thin dime.


The fat lady has been remastered as “Ruby,” “The Biggest Loser,” “Dance Your Ass Off.” The strong man is alive and well on “Raw,” “SmackDown,” “Wipeout,” “American Gladiators.”


Of course, when P.T. Barnum turned tiny Charles Sherwood Stratton into Tom Thumb, the most famous little person in the world, he had no idea that 21st century America would follow his lead with “The Little Couple” and “Little People, Big World.”


The Tattooed Man had yokels gasping at the intricate designs on his body. Now we elicit the same fascination with “Tattoo Highway,” “LA Ink” and “Miami Ink.”


Hucksters were exploiting children a long time before we got into the act. At the 1915 World’s Fair live babies were on display to demonstrate a newfangled contraption called the incubator.


But we’ve taken child exploitation to a whole new level with reality shows like “Table for 12,” “18 Kids and Counting,” “Raising Sextuplets,” “Supernanny” and the sovereign leaders of grasping parents, “Jon & Kate Plus 8.” For some reason viewers seem entranced with screaming rug rats vying for attention — which is hard to get when you have enough siblings to make up a basketball team.


The champion of multiple births, Nadya Suleman (“Octomom”), recently signed on the dotted line for a couple of documentaries on her ill-gotten brood, declaring she doesn’t want to profit from her kids.


We’ve learned recently how “real” these reality shows are, as the marriage of Jon and Kate Gosselin collapsed, they both insisted they intend to continue the family show (and those juicy paychecks).


Two years ago when CBS boosted “Kid Nation” on an unsuspecting public — where kids were left unsupervised for 40 days in an abandoned town to form a “society” — wasn’t anyone thinking “Lord of the Flies”?


A series like “Toddlers & Tiaras” offers an interesting perspective on child exploitation. It’s a show about hysterically zealous mothers pushing and primping their young daughters into strutting their stuff like burlesque queens in hot pursuit of trophies or prizes. It’s a reality show exploiting children ABOUT the most egregious exploitation of children you can imagine.


The Snake-Oil Salesman, who set up his wagon at the circus and sold elixirs that cured everything that ails you, is still with us. Chillblains, the ague, nosebleeds, women’s complaints, sore muscles, weak livers, shingles and constipation — all were eased by this tiny bottle of perfection.


We have our snake-oil salesmen of today, only they concentrate on mental health instead of the physical. One tart scolding from Dr. Phil and you will no longer cheat on your wife. A short stay at Dr. Drew’s plush Pasadena rehab center will stop your alcohol dependency and one tear-stained “Intervention” (and 28 days away from the family) will cure your meth addiction.


Still, we treasure shows today that never would have occurred to P.T. Barnum. We watch a whole category of wealthy, superficial, egocentric women from “The Real Housewives of New York,” “Orange County,” “New Jersey” “Atlanta” ... wherever. There’s the spiritually challenged Kimora from “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Denise Richards (who finds it “Complicated”) and the Kardashian klan, who think, somehow, we all want to keep up with them.


Rock stars Ozzie Osbourne and Gene Simmons capitalize on their fame to propel their own reality shows about their families. Though Ozzie is barely coherent, his wife, Sharon, never misses an opportunity to seize the limelight.


We follow the uncouth “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” who dresses like an S&M master and hunts down weak-willed folk who’ve skipped bail. We watch men who repossess cars, cranky hucksters who flip houses, teams who clean messy houses, pudgy matchmakers who hook up millionaires, plastic surgeons who implant double Ds and meter maids who pass out parking tickets. Barnum never had it so good.


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Get out your needle and thread, here come eight clothing designers from “Project Runway” for a designer face-off on Aug. 20. Designers from past shows will meet to compete in a two-hour special on “Project Runway’s” new home, Lifetime. Returning will be Chris March, Daniel Vosovic, Santino Rice, Sweet P, Korto Momolu, Uli Herzner, Jeffrey Sebelia and Mychael Knight. Of those, only Sebelia actually won first place on the show. This is a good thing, because the best designers never win on “Project Runway.” It’s always the designer who creates the most outlandish outfits, couture that even Bette Midler wouldn’t be caught dead in. Maybe these will do better.


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Joely Richardson, the younger sister of the late Natasha Richardson, will be starring as Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife, in the final season of “The Tudors,” premiering next year on Showtime. Richardson, who comes from a long line of actors and directors, says she and her sister were very different.


“My sister was a real homebody and she liked cooking and watching television and I was more a tomboy. I liked climbing trees and that sort of thing. We were so different that we weren’t competitive with each other at all. When we both went into acting our lives were so different I think we had different strengths and weaknesses so I wouldn’t say we were competitive.”


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Twins Milly and Becky Rosso will take over the “Legally Blonde” franchise in a new show, “Legally Blondes,” premiering Sunday on ABC Family. Presented by perky “Legally Blonde” star Reese Witherspoon, this adventure takes place in high school, where the twins have been transferred from their native England to California. There they are confronted by the campus’ stuck-up princess and find themselves embroiled in a trial.

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