Reality Hits Back

Stereotypes against the ropes: Ishe Smith swings and connects
Paul Gero/NBC

More often than not, reality television is for the birds. There's a reason the bismuth-pink wedding of The Bachelorette's Trista Rehn to Ryan Sutter (insert whip-cracking sound) warranted a two-hour ABC vomitfest: Reality shows have become explicit emotional porn for the bonbon-munching set. Even challenge-oriented shows like The Amazing Race and Survivor are female-coded. The story editing tends to emphasize human drama and romance over physical accomplishment and aggression. Yeah, Fear Factor has bikini-clad chicks guzzling pureed Australian cockroaches, but NBC inexplicably markets that show to families with school-aged kids. It's almost like Double Dare with saline implants. Nearly every night of reality TV is ladies' night, which is why it's so refreshing to see big brutes knuckle up on The Contender. Grab a beer and some Ro*Tel cheese dip; this is ManTV at its finest.

The Contender brings 16 talented boxers to Los Angeles, where they train at the curiously studiolike "Contender Gymnasium" (is the "Tribal Council" set next door?) and compete in bouts. Meanwhile, they receive mentoring from host/executive producer Sylvester Stallone, Sugar Ray Leonard, and fight promoter/MILF Jackie Kallen. The season will culminate in a $1 million dollar prizefight at Caesars Palace, which should make for a compelling finale.

Unlike the kindergarten babies throwing punches on most reality shows (The Inferno, anyone?) the Contenders are legitimate fighters. Some even hail from the professional circuit; local boxer Anthony Bonsante, from Crosby-Ironton, is one such seasoned boxer. In addition to the pugilistic know-how on display, the show also has behind-the-scenes clout: Honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg developed the series for DreamWorks, marking the studio's first foray into reality television. This pedigree is evident in the expensive locations and celebrity guest roster. Compared to the shoddy, backless-set aura of most reality shows, The Contender feels appealingly solid.

The routine is simple enough for even a punch-drunk ring veteran to grok: The boxers are assigned to East Coast and West Coast teams, and compete in rote but grueling physical challenges. It's kind of like Celebrity Fit Club, only the contestants don't have to demean themselves by riding on those giant scales like sacks of bulk candy corn. (Sorry about your career, Daniel Baldwin.) The winning team gets to pick a fighter from its own ranks and an opponent from the losing squad. At the end of the hour, the chosen fighters duke it out in the ring before spectators and family.

Pearlescent globules of spittle fly in slow-mo, noses implode, baby mamas gasp in horror, but the fights proceed without intervention. Hard-nosed trainer Tommy Gallagher adds a dash of Burgess Meredith to the proceedings, urging slumping boxers to soldier on. Actually, Gallagher is the best part of the show. A scene where he takes the contestants shopping is more tear-jerking then the sappiest manufactured proposal on The Bachelor.

"Takin' these guys out for suits...I don't wanna get too corny, but it was really, really emotional," Gallagher rasps. Apparently boys do cry, even grizzled ex-boxers from Queens.

Katzenberg has described the show's tone as "movie-driven." Co-mogul Spielberg must be his only cinematic reference, because contestants come across as either faultless heroes or cartoonish bad guys. In a recent episode, cocksure Ahmed Kaddour trains for a bout against his sworn enemy, Ishe Smith. While the producers depict Ahmed wooing his flashy, corset-clad girlfriend and vowing to pummel Ishe beyond recognition, Ishe's segments show him tenderly bathing his son and reassuring his harried wife. (In a moment that seems even more telling, Ahmed declares "Allah is great!" before he enters the arena; are the editors actually playing the "Scary Arab" card?)

Naturally, the family man wins, and the editors crosscut footage of his dramatic victory with shots of his beaming wife. Cue the endorphin rush on our end. This is great TV, even if it's baldly manipulative. If The Contender is trying to appeal to the average American dad, they're doing a bang-up job.

Drama aside, the athleticism on display is anything but staged, and even those who are squicked out by the brutality of boxing might find themselves peeking at the action through fanned fingers. A comparison to Project Runway might seem incongruous, but both series succeed because they showcase actual craft rather than empty delusions of fame. The contestants here were competing before the cameras found them. In the slurred words of Stallone, "The only difference between you and the world champion is that they got a shot and you didn't."

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