In reality, it's fine if no one is listening
Posted: Jan. 28, 2004
Inadvertently, "Todd TV" may prove that viewers don't really want to play God after all.
It's too early to call the FX cable reality series a flop, but the numbers scored by its Jan. 21 premiere aren't promising.
According to the trade paper Hollywood Reporter, about 803,000 people watched the loudly hyped debut of the weekly show, which asks the audience to vote on a life plan for the amiably aimless Todd Santos, a 30-year-old waiter and would-be songwriter.
That's awfully low compared with the 4.7 million who watched the silly "Newlyweds" on MTV during the same time slot, the nearly 3 million who tuned in to "Comedy Central's" smart "Chappelle's Show" or even the 2.1 million who chose a repeat of "Monk" on USA.
The FX series is based on the theory that those of us who talk back to our TV sets yearn to have our advice not only heard but heeded.
In the wildly popular "American Idol," the audience merely gets to vote for favorite performers. "Todd TV" takes that idea a giant step further, giving viewers the chance to meddle in what FX describes as "life-changing decisions" via phone, e-mail or text messaging.
Just who is this Todd who's willing to play by FX's "you decide, he obeys" rules?
He's a tall, extremely good-looking Californian with, surprisingly, a bigger vocabulary and a wider range of facial expressions than your average hunk of reality-TV meat loaf. These attractive traits are offset, however, by habits that would be considered immature in a 15-year-old.
Sent to do his laundry by the show's producers, Todd observes that the last time he dropped quarters into a machine, he'd gone at least 10 days without wearing underwear. Bumping into an old girlfriend, he confides in a voice-over that, when she speaks, "I'm usually not listening to what she's saying, I'm just counting the seconds till she stops talking." Nice.
But it's neither Todd's love life nor his laundry that viewers get to vote on in the first episode. Instead, we're asked to weigh in on two weirdly contrived questions.
Should our musically inclined man-child accept a position as personal assistant to surly rocker Bret Michaels of Poison, who drops in from nowhere, or should he take a job as a singing telegram guy?
And, even more strangely, whom should Todd pick as a roommate: his annoying mom or a bland but mildly creepy therapist with the unlikely name of Dr. Pavlo?
Personally, my answer to both questions would be a hearty Neither Of The Above.
If anyone was born to live alone, it's the enthusiastically slovenly Todd. And as far as career choices, with his deceptively warm smile and his ability to look interested when he clearly isn't, he's already got the perfect job: waiting tables in a high-end restaurant.
But who am I to tell Todd any of this, for heaven's sake? I'm not his girlfriend. I'm not his mom. I'm not even Dr. Pavlo.
I do have some advice, though, for the people at FX: Think back to a show that had a short, undistinguished life last season on your sister broadcast network, Fox.
A little something called "Married by America."
Having trouble remembering this reality series? It was the one last spring where viewers were supposed to play matchmaker to a bunch of singles. Instead, viewers said, "Huh?" and the singles stayed that way.
The truth, I suspect, is that we enjoy talking back to the TV set not despite the fact but precisely because of the fact that no one is listening, let alone taking our half-baked ideas to heart.
This is what makes gossiping about an acquaintance ("Geez, can't she tell that that guy is a couple of tacos short of a combination plate?" "Yeah, really!") so much more fun than trying to counsel a friend ("Do you think my boyfriend is a little, you know, strange?" "Ummmmmm . . ."). When our opinions actually count, we're infinitely more circumspect about them.
Of course, nobody at FX asked for my opinion of "Todd TV" before they put it on the air. They're not asking me now, either.
But I love playing Monday morning quarterback, don't you?