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'The Benefactor': What Went Wrong

If you’ve watched even an inning or two of Fox’s baseball coverage these past few weeks, you’ve no doubt seen 15 dozen promos for My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss. Just as its predecessor, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancee, sought to take the piss out of the forced-marriage reality-program sub-genre, Big Fat Obnoxious Boss is a parody of Apprentice-style programming with would-be MBAs competing for the favor of a Trump-esque corporate sugar daddy. As you no doubt know, those kinds of shows feature a blowhard captain of industry barking non-sensical orders at the contestants, who are competing for the promise of some sort of gainful employment or cash prize or both. The difference with with My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss is, that it’s all supposed to be some sort of goof.

Well, I hate to break it to Fox, but someone has already beaten them to the punch with an Apprentice parody. There’s already a show on the air featuring deluded contestants vying for the favor of a mercurial business titan who forces them to obey ridiculous orders in exchange for an illusive cash prize. Only unlike My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, ABC’s The Benefactor, starring ridiculously lucky Internet mogul and basketball owner Mark Cuban, appears to be on the level.

Of course, The Benefactor’s immediate future is not nearly so promising as that of My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss. ABC scaled back its original eight-episode order to six episodes; the last installment airs tonight. And it’s a safe bet that tonight will be the last you see of Mark Cuban on your TV unless it’s shots of him making boo-boo kitty faces at the referees during televised Dallas Mavericks games.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Reality programming is the Aughties’ opiate of the masses. Slap just about anything up on the TV screen — C-level celebs sharing a Hollywood Hills condo, a hotel heiress driving cross-country with her slutty friend, a slack-jawed yokel trying to trick gold-digging hussies into thinking he’s a millionaire — and you’re bound to drum up some sort of audience. Throw in Cuban — who has shown in his other ventures an innate ability to give the people what they want — and 18 people debasing themselves for his chump change, and you would figure that The Benefactor would at least be watchable.

It wasn’t — not by a long shot. Cuban’s blog about the show turned out to be more interesting than anything on camera. The contestants were unengaging dullards. The challenges were arbitrary. And the ratings suffered as a result. Now, even Donald Trump laughs. And when that happens, it’s best to beat a hasty exit before anyone else notices the stink.

Still, before we toss The Benefactor onto the pile of moldering reality programs next to Last Comic Standing and The Next Great Champ, we should give the corpse one last going over to see if there are any lessons to be learned. It may be too late to save The Benefactor from its own crappiness, but maybe, producers of forthcoming reality shows can avoid making the same mistakes. In fact, I would contend that every reality-show producer should be forced to sit down and watch The Benefactor, not only because it offers a step-by-step guide on what not to do when putting together a reality program, but also because the folks responsible for Extreme Makeover, The Swan and whatever other nonsense is airing on network TV these days deserve a little misery in their lives, too.

Lesson One: Reality TV is not a Valuable Learning Tool

The appeal of reality TV is that it’s only a little more challenging than respiring. Reality shows ask for very little of your brain power and, in return, give you nothing more complex to think about than whether the Pagong tribe is going to squander this week’s rice ration or if some warbling teen-ager managed to stay on key while belting out “It’s Raining Men.” It’s really not a medium for conveying important life lessons.

Someone in charge of The Benefactor clearly forgot this important point, as much of the drama centered around, in the words of Mark Cuban, ” a series of tests to reveal the qualities to be successful in life.” And what would those qualities be? Platitudes cribbed from Life’s Little Instruction Book, if Cuban’s constant voice-overs are anything to go by: What separates the doers from the dreamers? The doing! Fear can either be a roadblock or it can be an amazing motivator! Make sure you sell to Yahoo just before the Internet boom collapses!

OK, maybe not the last one.

The point is, when people come home from a hard day of work and flip on the TV, they are not sitting down with a highlighter, a dog-eared copy of Who Moved My Cheese? and a notepad to jot down the 411 from Mark Cuban on how to scare up a billion dollars. They want a show that will take the edge off, that will give them a chance to decompress, that, at the very least, will provide relaxing white noise. What they are not looking for is to have pearls of wisdom barked at them by a guy who looks like he should be take some of that discretionary cash he’s looking to hand over to total strangers and invest it at SuperCuts instead.

Lesson Two: Viewers Like to Watch Total Strangers Get Torn Apart

What’s your favorite part of American Idol? If you’re the least bit honest, it’s that moment after every song when Simon Cowell gives his point-by-point analysis of why some would-be chanteuse should never, ever sing again — not even in the shower.

Same question about The Apprentice: what’s your favorite part? If you’re like me — and I’m afraid for your soul’s sake, that you are — it’s when Donald Trump provides painstaking detail about why someone is getting the boot.

The lesson here? We watch figure-skating competitions to see ice princesses land on their kiesters. We watch presidential press conferences to see which world leader’s name will be butchered this time around. And we watch reality programs to see deluded saps get what’s coming to them.

Unless you tune into The Benefactor. Then, you’re watching to see Mark Cuban give his charges — even the ones who fail spectacularly — a slap on the back and a hearty handshake. The hell?

A few episodes back, Cuban presented his would-be benefactees with a challenge: he would give them $1,000 and they would use that money however they wanted to do something amazing by 8 p.m. that evening.

One idea, in particular, stood out for its audacious stupidity. A contestant by the name of Dominic decided to spend his $1,000 to be a rock star for a day — a pretty bold plan considering he didn’t actually know how to play any sort of musical instrument. So he plunked down a grand on a fancy guitar, convinced a local rock band to back him up for free, and spent the rest of the day learning how to play a chord. That night, he and his band gave Mark Cuban a concert — well, the band did; Dominic mostly hopped around playing the same chord over and over. And once the song ended, Dominic took his guitar — the instrument he had just plunked down $1,000 of someone else’s money, mind you — and smashed it to bits.

As a wise investment of $1,000, that would seem to rank just behind placing the bills in a big pile in front of your benefactor, setting it on fire and then dousing the flames with your own urine.

Cuban’s reaction? “I am so, so proud of you guys,” he says. Dominic “may not be the brightest guy in the world, but he’s got a heart of gold, and he follows his heart, and he’s fearless.” I reiterate: the hell?

In a world that demands Simon Cowells, The Benefactor offers us a roomful of Paula Abduls. That might be great for the self-esteem of the people on the show, but it doesn’t give viewers much of a reason to stick around.

Lesson Three: Viewers Like to Know Why Contestants are Sent Packing

If you irritate your fellow tribe members on Survivor, the odds are pretty good that Jeff Probst will be snuffing out your torch sometime soon. If you miss a connecting flight on The Amazing Race, count on having Phil Keoghan point you toward the door. And if you completely butcher a Diane Warren song on American Idol, don’t expect that record contract any time soon.

Clear-cut rules for elimination — they’re important if you want the home-audience to feel like they’re playing along. “They shouldn’t have gotten on that flight to Istanbul if it meant a layover in Budapest,” viewers can say, as they stroke their chins wisely. “And who opts for ‘Unbreak My Heart’ in this day and age, anyhow?”

So on The Benefactor, it stands to reason that you can expect a contestant to get eliminated whenever… um… uh… ah….

Look, I’ve watched four episodes of the program now, and I have no earthly idea why Mark Cuban eliminated the people he did. Maybe they rubbed him the wrong way. Maybe they failed to caper sufficiently for his amusement. Maybe he had a particularly bad sandwich at lunch that day and took it out on the first person he saw after his stomach began cramping. I simply do not know.

And I found that problematic in my efforts to enjoy The Benefactor.

I mean, there’s something to be said for introducing the vagaries of chance into your little game. But there’s also something to be said for introducing easy-to-follow rules. And when you decide one week to leave the elimination up to a panel of school children — “Kids see things the rest of us don’t,” Mark informed us as the knee-high Star Chamber voted on which contestant to sack —- you probably have a little too much chance and a little too few rules.

Or to put it another way: last week when the competition was down to five contestants, Cuban ordered the remaining contenders to pair up into teams of two; the one player to find a partner risked elimination. Well, three of the contestants decided to leave things up to a game of Jenga — the loser would be left without a partner. Well, that turned out to be the thrice-damned, guitar-smashing Dominic — which is when Mark Cuban emerged to announce that Dominic wouldn’t be eliminated after all. Instead, he would be sent on a trip to Cancun while the people who successfully managed to partner up would be left to compete for Cuban’s favor. “Sometimes, the best deals are the ones you don’t make,” Cuban said, flipping to page 44 of The Big Black Book of Aphorisms for Entrepreneurs.

And at home, The Benefactor’s remaining 12 viewers think to themselves, “I’ve lost plenty of games of Jenga. And nobody’s ever given me a trip to Cancun.”

Hey, it’s great Mark Cuban gets to run his reality show by his rules. (He is putting up the $1 million prize money, after all.) It just might be nice if he were to occasionally take the time to let the rest of us in on what exactly those rules are.

And that brings us to The Benefactor’s final problem…

Lesson Four: The Host Matters

A few months after the fact, we’re hard pressed to remember anyhow who appears on a reality show, even the winners. Seconds after their stint ends, the clock begins ticking on how long it takes before one-time reality show contestants are reduced to signing autographs alongside Miss October 1982 at local comic-book conventions or faxing off their resumé to the producers of The Surreal Life.

Contestants come and go. Reality show hosts will be with us always. And as a host, Mark Cuban is an unmitigated disaster.

His criticisms of contestants are neither biting nor memorable. His introduction of unexpected twists is more maddening than surprising. He is one “carpe diem” away from switching into a language composed entirely of clichés. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the butler on Joe Millionaire and one being Ryan Seacrest, Mark Cuban is a negative-12. He is the Los Angeles Clippers of reality show hosts.

It’s a shame, too. Outside of his terrible TV show, Mark Cuban comes across as a bright, engaging fellow. He’s enjoyed many of his successes because of a willingness to challenge conventional ways of doing things. So it’s just a little bit ironic that his TV show failed precisely because he didn’t follow a few simple conventions of reality programming.

Maybe The Benefactor’s producers would have been better off tapping Fox’s Big Fat Obnoxious Boss guy instead.


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