By Ken Tucker
November 15, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Reality-TV shows ranging from Survivor: Thailand to The Bachelor 2 to The Real World: Las Vegas can be a lot of things, but dull shouldn’t be one of them. Filled with idiocy? Now that I expect — as when one Survivor tribe, through sheer lazy negligence, lost the boat that might have helped round up some protein-providing fish. Exec producer Mark Burnett masterfully underscored such boneheadedness by cutting from one of the tribe members bemoaning the small vessel’s waywardness to a swooping aerial shot of the boat that had drifted alllll the way over to a different island. Here was an example of stupidity made entertaining by clever editing.

Crass kitsch? That’s also a reality-show given, like the time Bachelor 2’s Gwen, a ferociously smiling blonde, donned a gown and tiara to go out on her ”Cinderella date.” She seemed thrilled to be riding with our man of the moment, Aaron Buerge, in a garish pumpkin-shaped coach all a-twinkle with glittering lightbulbs.

And crazed horniness I expect, too; it is a staple of the genre, as when Las Vegas Real Worlder Steven says of housemate Trishelle, ”Her breasts are always on my mind.” During the commercial break, an MTV announcer teases the next installment by saying, ”Get ready, because on this all-new Real World, we’ll be taking it all off!”

But I did not expect that the current spate of reality shows would be so unrelentingly dreary and lifeless. We’ve reached the point in this genre at which the protagonists walk through their supposedly spontaneous moves as predictably as Roma Downey and Della Reese can be counted upon to glow beatifically on a scripted show like Touched by an Angel. The difference, of course, is that whereas rigidly structured dramas like Touched, 7th Heaven, and The District push good behavior and modesty as their own rewards, the dirty islanders, the Vegas self-promoters, and the ripped singles on the ”reality” shows offer the promise of down-and-dirty excessiveness. The result is that the screaming arguments, greedy instincts, and roommate group gropes become as tiresomely familiar as a syndicated rerun of Wings.

Survivor: Thailand boasts the most boorish group of castaways yet assembled by Burnett. With the possible exception of Ken, the New York City cop, who occasionally exhibits a novel mixture of moral compass and flash-fire temper, none of the survivors has been either charming or resourceful (thereby denying us someone to root for), and no one has yet to rival egregiously irksome or villainous Survivor 1 king Richard Hatch. Tellingly, host Jeff Probst is noticeably testier with the Thailand mob, exhorting them impatiently during competitions that are themselves becoming annoyingly repetitive (what? the old arrange-the-puzzle-pieces test again?). Probst sharply chided the cloddish Clay during an elimination vote for writing down a nickname for the departed Ghandia — ”Denver Diva” — that confused and thus irritated our tanned, cosseted host.

Meanwhile, The Real World, now in its 12th season, has taken on an air of grimness. Remember when the lucky little MTV-selected pups used to gambol into their plush new house and squeal delightedly at all the bright colors and decorations (oooh — a fish tank!) before gradually, week by week, discovering that there were snarling junkyard dogs among their number? The latest ”seven strangers” arrived with teeth bared and belt buckles loosened — they couldn’t wait to snipe and (if I hear this phrase again, I’ll, I’ll…throw a fork at someone!) ”hook up.” It would require the Vegas forensics team of CSI to locate a fiber of shame among these seven hollow souls.

As for the second edition of The Bachelor, it lost me when Aaron — a smug entrepreneur whose oily smoothness with the lay-dees reminds me of the unwarranted arrogance of late-’90s young dotcom hucksters — rejected the one woman among the 25 who displayed some worldly perspective, the discreetly funny Hayley. (You have to be discreet about possessing a sense of humor on this show, because it’s interpreted by the other gals as being stuck-up and by the bachelor as a sign of the one thing neither Aaron nor his predecessor, the ghoulishly calm Alex Michel, seems to care about in a woman: brains.)

I know, I know what you’re saying: Turn off the set and read a book. Wishing for intelligence to be displayed among contestants on game shows like these is a chump’s complaint. But I’m not one of those folks who decry reality TV as civilization-threatening; all I’m asking for is some sense of fun, some surprise, some small evidence of shrewdness that might make these series entertainingly startling once again. I know things are bad when every time Anderson Cooper pops up as a Serious Newsman on CNN, I start thinking fondly of His Wryness when he was king of the Mole-people. The Bachelor: F+; Survivor: C; Real World: D

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