It’s a difficult time, that post work, pre dinner – post Simpsons, pre Channel 4 News half hour. Employment-pooped on the sofa – a crossword-cuddle and coffee-soaked cat-stroke does not fill the time, so it’s usually down to the digital channels. Since E4 is the spawn of repeat hell, the lady opts for Living and their various reruns, premiers and catch-ups of America’s Next Top Model / Britain’s Next Top Model.
It’s the same format the Atlantic across – a judging panel of high fashionistas heap scorn and praise upon a gaggle of excitable skeletal forms, all of whom are competing for a cover shoot on a depressingly formulaic clothes magazine and some money. The girls are whittled down on their ability to wear impossibly abstract outfits and how they fare in a variety of challenges – look sad, look happy, look psychotic… that sort of thing.
As required, the girls all live together throughout the whole affair, developing close and meaningful relationships with people they wilfully stab in the back at the first opportunity. There’s much sobbing, much high drama, much suggested nudity and many braless pokies until the most average looking one wins and no-one gets a career out of it.
The US version is hosted by Tyra Banks – someone to whom I grudgingly admit a strong liking of. The UK host is Lisa Snowden – someone I’m informed once dated George Clooney. Their respective judges are digitally-created stereotypes, impossibly unreal examples of fashion types – a blonde cornroed hairdresser, a facially paralysed gay dancer, a structurally altered supermodel and a domineering mommy agent.
The girls are either snivelling wrecks or stage trained personalities, contrived clichés of girl-types. They screech, scream and squeal throughout like immaculately groomed parrots, repeating the mantra of “me” as if etched into their psyches at puberty. Few are attractive, most are obtuse and the rare beauties that make it through are smothered in Olay to make them shimmy as it they were the desert heat.
What is amazing is how utterly unsexual the shows are. You’d have thought the catfights of skimpily dressed teenage models would be dangerously arousing material, but it’s like hanging out with your 14 year old sister and her friends at a slumber party.
The best thing about the Next Top Models, though, is the scheduling of it. With 168 episodes to choose from, Living have become very liberal with their screening of the show – going as mad as a Friends fan organizing a Friends Marathon on E4 and have saturated their channel.
It is perfectly possible to watch an episode every day at the same time and have it bear no connection to any other episode viewed that week. Rather than follow closely the exploits of a handful of contestants you find yourself being subjected to a non-linear free association of model activity, a Molotov Cocktail of combustible beauty behaviour. It’s like the cut-up novels of William Burroughs carried across 14 series of symmetrical faces fighting to be unique.
As a result, I love the Next Top Model shows; they’re long running Paul Thomas Anderson reality shows that flit between time and space and become an amorphous mass of a bigger story. Separately they are just episodes of a shite reality show, but viewed as a whole they are dramatic rendition of the collective experiences of a subculture of 16-24 year old beauty queens.
One day there will be a glorious evening where the culminated story arcs come together in one seven hour burst of programming. Everything will be resolved and explained, and 14 beautiful and deserving characters will be awarded their crowns to wear with pride…