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America's Next Top Model

Cycle Seven
Cast: Tyra Banks, Nigel Barker, J. Alexander, Twiggy, Jay Manuel
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 8pm ET

(The CW; US: 20 Sep 2006)

0 to Diva

To inaugurate the CW network, America’s Next Top Model splashes down with its two-hour premiere, full of the expected bitch-fests and tears. Yet the Top Model premiere is also rife with imbalance. The first half relies on voyeuristic spectacles, while the second attempts to break out the dramatic fireworks without setting up the necessary melodrama. In either case, the premiere limps along the lines of a spectacle, without much narrative shape.

The first half is devoted to the hordes of semifinalists. Of the 33, nearly two-thirds won’t survive this first hour. As usual, these eliminations are premised on voyeuristic spectacle. The semifinalists isolated in an interview room before the judges (Tyra Banks, Jay Manuel, and J. Alexander), who ritually compel several of the girls to recount traumatic childhood narratives. Leangela went from “homeless to Homecoming queen.” African American Monique is the darkest-skinned member of her family. AJ is a 20-year-old cervical cancer survivor. Megan is an orphan who survived a plane crash in a freezing field only because she was kept warm by her mother’s body.

After they tell their stories, the episode seems done with them, as the tragedies are unconnected to any overarching narrative, only asking viewers to gape at and pity the girls for their brief moments before the panel. Like sideshows or exhibition pieces in glass cases, the stories stop the action, and then we move on.

Where this episode’s first half lacks any narrative payoff, the second is all payoff without setup. The competition constitutes the bulk of Top Model and always breeds tears and outlandish melodrama from the high-pressure and close-quarter situations. But such melodrama is effective only as the consequence of a compelling emotional buildup. Lacking that, the second half focuses attention on the most dramatic contestants, Monique and Melrose.

As the early frontrunner for this season’s villain, Monique loses out on claiming a bed (producers only supply the house with 11 beds for the 13 girls). Instead, she usurps Eugena’s bed by dripping water over it. “I… marked my territory,” she explains. “I deserve a bed!” Later, during an all-important conference to hash out the house’s bathing rules, Monique refuses to deny herself her God-given right to hour-long showers. “I don’t care where I’m at, that’s just me, that’s just what I do,” she says. “As much as I rush, I still take a long shower.” When housemate Amanda asks her to change her habits in the spirit of sisterly camaraderie, Monique replies, “That’s just Monique. That’s just what I do.”

Like all memorable villains, Monique seems to threaten the status quo through her obstinate refusal to compromise, but in truth, the girls have yet to establish a status quo before she starts throwing her weight around. The show accelerates from 0 to Diva in so little time that viewers are left to wonder if they missed anything earlier in the episode.

Similarly, the show’s other burgeoning diva Melrose indulges in stereotypical model behavior, but her histrionics have no context; it’s only the first episode, after all. At one point, Melrose collapses into a puddle of tears. Though the events that lead up to this outburst are obvious, they also seem too inconsequential to warrant the intensity of her reaction. As with Monique, viewers feel cheated out of the lead-up to her response (reality TV is less about the results than it is about the journeys, after all). Then again, maybe viewers didn’t miss anything and it’s Melrose who’s missing something. Sanity? Perhaps. In all likelihood, however, she just doesn’t understand the rhythms of a reality TV season: Melrose should have saved her breakdown for Week Eight.

In the end, the Top Model premiere is schizophrenic. The first half tries to exhibit the girls as spectacular sideshows and nothing more, while the second half offers melodrama without an emotional base. Such fracturing fails to entertain. I’m starting to wonder if Tyra is fallible after all.


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