The players look great, and they hook up. Plus, not understanding the language makes the show even better, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated June 04, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Loft Story
Credit: Loft Story: Baril/Corbis Sygma

Loft Story

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French reality TV brings sex to the Web

”Survivor” 2 has crawled off into the outback sunset. ”Chains of Love” has fashioned its last tawdry link. The Orwellian tabloid cheesefest known as ”Fear Factor” won’t start for a few weeks.

What’s a self-nonrespecting reality TV junkie to do? Oh, you could get your fix with MTV kiddie shows like ”Making the Band,” but that’s like sucking on a Tootsie Pop instead of a hookah full of the pop-cult junk you crave. Where can you turn, aside from REAL reality (which, for the purposes of this article, we will shrug off as simply not sleazy enough)?

France. That’s right, the country that gave us Jean-Luc Godard, Henri Matisse, and an intellectual appreciation of the films of Jerry Lewis is in the throes of its own reality TV controversy, and it puts our own little video contretemps to shame. The show is called ”Loft Story,” and since it began airing in France in late April, the nation has been riven with controversy over high ratings and low morals. Front page editorials have slammed the series, executives of competing networks have demanded it be yanked, the Minister of Culture is apoplectic — and TV audiences from Cherbourg to Lyons are obsessed. Believe me, the French know how to do agonized cultural chest-beating.

And for what? For a TV show that rips off ”Big Brother” and does it right. ”Loft Story” follows the same basic set-up as the failed CBS reality show (itself a translation from a Dutch original): A dwindling gaggle of men and women are stuck in a house for 10 weeks with cameras peering at them and a disembodied voice ordering them to do silly things every so often. You can watch an edited version of this hamster cage on TV, or watch unedited video feeds on the Internet. So what’s the difference? Simple: The contestants are all young and attractive. Since the winning couple gets a ritzy apartment, they’re encouraged to pair up.

And, oh yes, they have sex.

Well, two of them did: blonde bombshell Loana and skeevy goatee-with-legs Fabrice. In the middle of the night, in the pool. It didn’t make the cut for the TV edition, of course, but webheads caught the whole show. This, of course, only had the result of driving both ratings and op-ed fuming through the roof.

The rich irony of all this is that, as much as the cultural commentators would love to blame America for dragging French TV into the gutter, they can’t. ”Big Brother” was a massive flop here — in large part because the show’s creators, craving sex appeal but terrified of actual sex, aimed for demographic balance. Anyway, the whole reality-show boom was, as mentioned, started by the Dutch company Endemol, which pioneered versions of both ”Survivor” and ”Big Brother” (and which is producing ”Loft Story”). Sorry, my Gallic friends, you can firebomb all the McDonald’s you want, but you can’t pin this one on us.

None of which should or could keep us fascist media pigs in the U.S. from enjoying ”Loft Story” for ourselves. In fact, if you’ve got the requisite video-viewing software, you can watch the bloody thing all day: Just go to ”Loft Story”’s website, hit the ”Live” button, and swill away at the feeds from two conveniently located cameras. If you want to register your name and e-mail, you get access to the two bedroom cams, but my experience so far has been that the network simply switches between the available cams wherever something interesting is happening.

Which, really, isn’t often. In the end, this is ”Big Brother” with a prettier, louder, more self-absorbed cast. But even that’s an improvement, right? And don’t worry if you can’t speak French: neither can I, and it doesn’t matter in the least. In fact, I’d argue that the language barrier actually IMPROVES ”Loft Story.”

You can still get a bead on all the players, for instance. Laure is the chic, yappy fashion plate. Christophe is thuggish, sardonic, and blunt. Julie is sweet and a little needy, while Philippe is the smug yuppie. Loana is all dimwitted id, while Fabrice has clearly been watching too many Mickey Rourke movies. Maybe I’m missing some nuances, but if I wanted that I’d go read some Robbe-Grillet.

And the fact that I have no real idea what the hell is happening as I watch the live feed gives a patina of mystery to the goings on. Why was Philippe waving a gun last week to the collected nonchalance of everyone else? Was it a toy? Are they hoping he’ll put them out of their misery? Why did the whole crew dress up in Halloween costumes and dance around like ninnies? Why was Julie feeling up Christophe on the couch to his apparent ennui? When they’re all passionately arguing about something over the dinner table, is it more substantive than ”Big Brother”’s similar yakfests, or does it just sound that way because they’re talking in French?

Who’s going to win ”Loft Story”? I honestly don’t care. Having these folks in a little video window on my computer during the workday is exactly like keeping a fishtank on my desk filled with colorful, snappy inhabitants. The fact that I don’t speak fish doesn’t lessen the appeal.

Loft Story

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