Jackpot of Shame

The grim Strip Poker bets against the dignity of its contestants--and wins

Reality TV may prove less harmful than the low-level radiation emitted from deep inside the tube, but then again, its full yuckiness has yet to be plumbed. Consider the USA network's humiliating Strip Poker, whose operating principle appears to be that anyone can be trusted to debase herself simply because she has been granted five minutes of camera time. How else to explain a program from which nobody derives much pleasure? The host openly chafes at the major networks' unaccountable failure to award him a sitcom; the guests mug lamely, caught between hey-I'm-on-TV pride and what-the-hell-am-I-doing panic; and the audience never appears, a dead giveaway that none of this is as much fun as the catcalls on the soundtrack suggest.

Located on a quickie set decorated to recall Fifties Vegas, Strip Poker (USA, Channel 17 in Minneapolis, 12 in St. Paul; 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays) feels furtive and nasty--though, astoundingly, it has oozed into a second season and is rapidly expanding beyond its home network. The show's edge of bitter desperation makes it unlikely that future trash mavens will see fit to reissue it on video. At least The Man Show is a social venture: Every episode documents that for people who like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing they like (as Lincoln once remarked, though not during a discussion of Guy TV). Compare that dynamic with the schadenfreude inherent in this program, which extends from the producers to you as much as it does from you to the contestants. Strip Poker jabs nastily under the skin; this is what it feels like to have your palm greased and your face slapped at the same time.

Two of a kind: Strip Poker host and dealer Graham Elwood and Jennifer Cole
Two of a kind: Strip Poker host and dealer Graham Elwood and Jennifer Cole

I know, I know: We get "as much skin as humanly possible on broadcast cable," as Strip Poker host Graham Elwood boasts. What else do you need? Two men compete against two women, answering asinine questions to create the best hands over three rounds of poker. Losers of the first round drop trou, as do losers of individual questions in the second and third rounds, as do losers of the game. Closing shot features women in bras, panties, and heels gyrating with men in boxers (the guys always kick off their shoes and socks) amid a surf of jams, teddies, and hot pants. Oh, and the winners split about $1,000, plus an unspecified appearance fee. What's wrong with this picture? Taken on its own terms, Strip Poker is primo frat-party TV, a subgenre in which USA has excelled ever since the advent of its "Up All Night" cleavage-fests featuring professionally trampy bleach-job Rhonda Shear.

The truly creepy aspect of this particular program is the species of human genetically engineered to host it--the product of a horrific breeding experiment in some L.A. basement. The solidly built, dark-haired Elwood looks exactly like a computer morph stuck midway between Gilbert Gottfried and The Man Show's Adam Carolla. And, of course, he talks the talk, mouthing the same bitter dissatisfaction as his progenitors, rolling his eyes at the viewer as if to plead his way off the screen, joylessly enforcing the rules, and mock-lusting at the contestants' antics. (Not to mention the homophobic patter, like teasing a guy unfortunate enough to know where women apply perfume, so we won't get the wrong idea about Elwood watching shirtless men.) At least hot-stuff "dealer" (she's relegated to putting the cards in their slots) Jennifer Cole seems without illusion about the future prospects this show probably isn't opening for her. No doubt her widely varied apprenticeship, from Playboy to the Christian PAX network, where she co-hosted a football pregame show, has taught her how few sure things exist for Hollywood hopefuls these days. But at least she doesn't have to be a contestant.

Who could blame Elwood, an experienced sketch and standup comedian, for bemoaning his lot? The contestants on Strip Poker, from the looks of them mostly larking San Diego State undergrads (good-looking, as a rule, but not starlet cute), don't appear to be leveraging their visibility into possible film or music work--unlike the cannily careerist post-teens on similar MTV shows. Or if they are, they can't be enticing too many agents: Their stripper moves look wan, with the guys often just doffing their pants with nary a wriggle. (Without crowd shots that would establish the presence of actual women in the audience, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the poor abashed men are there merely as window-dressing.) And surely agents expect a minimal dollop of brain matter for those fan-mag Q&As. Sample head-scratchers here: "You caught your boyfriend masticating. What was he doing?" "Martha Stewart is Rod Stewart's mother, true or false?" "EA in a video-game title stands for what?" Answer: "Uh, Sega?"

But the saddest aspect of this show is the light it sheds on a disturbing intersection of media and sexuality. Depending on the night you're watching, in between the program you get weirdly cheesy Wall Street Journal spots promising upward mobility for just a few dollars a week, ads for album-rock collections, or promos for cheapo "Girls Gone Wild" videos, which promise you, for $19.95 (money back if you're not 100 percent satisfied), two collections of coeds gleefully popping their tops on Spring Break, Mardi Gras, and probably Easter.

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