I remember reading this almost perfect article in Vanity Fair more than a decade ago about the fierce friendship and even fiercer competitive spirit between two men I truly believe helped to usher in the devolution of society even more significantly than Trump, Putin, and all the hackers crammed into that Russian think tank combined. Mike Fleiss and Mike Darnell, the friendliest of professional foes, are the men who separately or together blessed us with the following illustrious television fare:
· Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire – When future scholars attempt to decipher the exact moments that helped bring forth the decline of western civilization, I have not an iota of a doubt that they will look closely at this example of “event television.” The premise? Women competed beauty pageant-style to land a man whose face they could only see a glimpse of in shadow and the lucky winner was eventually married on that stage by the end of the telecast to a guy who, it turned out, looked far better in the shadows. This man was not actually a multi-millionaire, but he definitely had a restraining order taken out against him by a frightened former girlfriend, a nugget of information even a moron willing to marry a stranger on television before she posed for Playboy maybe should have been informed about.
· Joe Millionaire – You know what’s even more hilarious than creating an experience that ends with a woman marrying a felonious stranger? A show that presented women with a man who looked like he should be the cover model for the kind of romance book you’d buy on line at a Costco when you couldn’t find the Tootsie Rolls. These women were told the guy was a millionaire who happened to be craving forever love and then they were tossed into elimination style competitions to win his heart. At the end, the woman who came out on top was rewarded with the guy shrieking “Surprise!” because it turned out he’d been faking everything: he’s wasn’t rich, he didn’t really long for love, but the woman should smile widely anyway because the finale aired during Sweeps.
· When Animals Attack – For those who had yet to feel sated by the footage of Mike Tyson gnawing on Evander Holyfield’s ear or from watching the kiss-the-curb scene in American History X on a loop, this program existed so one could wile away the days looking at animals ripping other animals – and a few wildly unlucky human beings – limb from limb.
· The Swan – once called “the most sadistic reality series of the decade” in a decade that included the aforementioned series about animals mauling people, this show gathered several women seeking, well, let’s call it “personal betterment.” As part of their quest, they were given therapists, trainers, dentists, and more plastic surgery than anyone other than that chick from The Hills has ever received in such a short amount of time. Then – bruised but hopeful – they were paraded out to be judged by a team of “experts” until only one was left and was crowned The Swan. Sadly, one contestant was thrown out of the competition before the grand finale because she smuggled in a mirror so she could see what the surgeons had done to her face and contraband mirrors clearly violated the rules of that fine program and the woman must now live every single day knowing she will never be The Swan and such inner turmoil must cause her to drape every mirror currently in her home with sheets like she’s holding a lifelong shiva call lest she be reminded of how her momentary vanity destroyed her chance at a crown.
· Mr. Personality – a dating show in which the male participants wore Phantom of the Opera type masks – only scarier – so the eligible woman searching for The One would have to judge them purely by personality instead of by which person she could imagine on top of her due to aesthetics. The private time she shared with these men occurred in a pitch-black room similar to a dungeon where the men were permitted to remove their masks so the two could suck face after she felt the man’s skin carefully and slowly in an effort to suss out which of her masked suitors was riddled with cystic acne or terribly deviated septums. The viewers were shown the hookups via night vision cameras, something that was not at all creepy and if you think there’s anything wrong with watching a woman on TV finger a man’s face before letting him stick his tongue in her mouth through the tint of green night vision, then I feel badly for you because you clearly have no idea what romance is.
· When Good Pets Go Bad – I’ve never seen this show, but I might be the only one who skipped it because its ratings beat Frasier back in the day. I’d check it out now on YouTube, but I think it’s fine to take the title literally and know based on that alone what this special show was all about. Besides, I’m afraid watching even a brief clip of it at home will give Tally – my currently relatively well behaved Maltipoo – some very bad ideas.
There’s really no way to look at the Fleiss/Darnell collection of ideas – all of which made it on the air – and not see these shows as the flaming kindling that helped build the garbage fire that is our present. But there’s also no way to validly look at these shows without admitting how very profitable exploitation can be in a society that craves high-concept entertainment that gets dipped in a batter made of bland humiliation before being fried in infamy and served to millions of people who lied when they said they only wanted to eat organic. Showmen of the highest order, they completely understood that people want to watch behavior of the lowest common denominator, and these two men changed the face of television in that television is now populated by nameless people with nary a talent and many of those currently sashaying across the screen in high-definition were first brought into our lives via a little show Mike Fleiss created called The Bachelor.
I haven’t watched a full season of The Bachelor in a very long time, but it’s not because I’ve developed a hatred for mindless reality programming. In fact, I usually only see about half of an episode because I have to turn off ABC to switch over to Bravo so I can write a twelve page recap of Vanderpump Rules. (Yes – I’m a woman with priorities.) I DVR The Bachelor and I always plan on watching the rest of the show at some point, but I end up erasing it every single week because I just don’t care that much and besides, it hurts to choke back bile whenever a grown woman is called “Lindsey M.” in what is meant to be a romantic moment. I did watch a few episodes of the Ben Higgins season and I am embarrassed to say I watched all of Bachelor in Paradise and it is because of that backslide in viewing that I even know there are two identical twins who are trying to adult all over the fucking place named Emily and Haley Ferguson.
I’d heard these two had gotten their own show on some network called Freeform, but I had zero intention of watching it. I can say with total certainty that once Bachelor in Paradise skidded to a close with four engagements (three of which died quickly), I never sat awake nights wondering about the lives of those twins. Then an exciting opportunity brought them briefly back into my life because Kate Casey – she of the amazing podcasts and the author of the site loveandknuckles.com – asked me to be a guest on her show and to please take a look at the very first episode of the twin thing because that’s what we’d be talking about. I took this request almost as a dare and the very first challenge was to locate the show. Thanks to Hulu, the twins soon appeared in my living room and I would like to tell you all about this experience so they never have to appear in yours.
The title of the premiere episode is Leap of Faith (which seems prescient) and the show begins with the girls doing a little rap that includes the lines, “We got our own show and we don’t know how”– and that makes three of us. God, I miss the days when you had to have actual talent to be on TV. Anyhoo, my first impression was that you can’t tell them apart, a fact that doesn’t matter in the least, and that they’re sticking with the “brand” they presented on those Bachelor shows, which is they’re pretty identical twins who are currently traumatized by the notion that they’ve reached their early twenties and haven’t found everlasting love, and sure, they present themselves as being almost unrealistic in their inanity, but they’re nice girls so we should forgive them for being willing to start their very own series by illustrating that they’re not fully capable of walking down stairs and talking at the same time. Seriously. One of them – I’ll just call her Twin #2 – falls down.
After the rapping blessedly ends, the actual show starts with a montage of their conception because it’s always nice go all the way back to the embryonic stage as a way to illustrate character development. Once the egg splits, we find ourselves in a suburb of Las Vegas where the girls are lazing away yet another morning. They are each in a bed surrounded by dogs and each one of their beds has their name written above it in what I’m imagining was a last-ditch psychological effort to remind them that, though twins, they are in fact two separate people. They sit in bed, compare their number of Instagram followers, and then they contemplate the meaning of the universe and the values inherent in the concept of Stoicism – though it’s quite possible I imagined that last part. The girls begin each day by saying good morning to a poster of Ben the Bachelor that’s hanging on a wall in their home – as one does – and then they go to the mall or to the gym and they do all of it together because it’s not at all creepy to be twenty-four years old and not have even a smidgen of individuality, or at least that’s what some producer once told them.
And speaking of the producers, I’d like to know a few things about the construction of this show because the people who decided on the following must first be fired and then perhaps sterilized to help save what’s left of humanity:
1. Throughout the entire episode, emoticons dot the screen. When something sad happens, it’s a woeful-looking emoji. When something scary happens, a freaked out yellow cartoon face appears. While I realize this is truly a show for a generation that would rather look at a cartoon picture of happiness than learn how to actually feel happiness, I have to know who thought this was a good idea to use once, let alone constantly.
2. After a moment when the wacky twins hoverboard through their kitchen and “accidentally” knock over a glass vase and choose not to clean it up because they’re running late for the gym, we get footage of fighting kangaroos for absolutely no reason, but then again, who needs any sort of narrative resolution when there are dueling marsupials to stare at? The problem here is there’s all sorts of footage of random animals throughout the episode for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend, but some producer thought it was a hilarious idea and I sort of need to know why.
3. The entire construct of this show is that these girls need to grow up and “start adulating,” and while a part of me appreciates that someone involved in the creation of this trainwreck helped turn the word “adult” into a gerund, the newest addition to our culture’s already disintegrating vernacular worries me tremendously.
But as for the adulating that must take place, the girls are out to prove they can be responsible. In fact, they illustrate their remarkable capacity for responsibility each and every day by feeding a fish that hasn’t actually been in their tank for four years because it’s been dead for four years. Okay, here’s my issue with this show right here. Either these girls are actually this dumb – which alone is a legitimate problem – or they are perfectly willing to pretend they’re this dumb and the viewers are also being asked to be dumb because only a total moron would believe that anything that occurs in this episode is anything but fully contrived. Let’s take, for example, the moment their mother comes home to a kitchen filled with broken glass and we’re asked to buy that it is in this very moment that she realizes her adult twins need to move out of the house and grow up. How wonderful it is that this mental breakthrough came while cameras were in her house and all the participants were wearing microphones! Life is so fortuitous that way, right? Or could it be that her realization is less than an authentic plan that only comes up because these two women need a storyline for a show that shouldn’t actually exist in the first place?
I’m not saying that Jill, the girls’ mother, shouldn’t want them to move out. After taking up space in her uterus and then in her home, I’m sure she’d love a bit of privacy. Besides, she’s more their housekeeper than their mother, what with her cleaning up the poop of all those untrained dogs and making them pb&j with the crusts cut off while they recline in their bedrooms saying things like, “I just want to say on social media that I worked out, but I don’t actually want to work out.” This sentence? It’s their lives in a nutshell. Everything they do is a post-worthy moment because if a tricep bulges in a suburban Las Vegas gym, it will only matter if it’s then shared with and liked by sixty-eight million strangers.
It’s not like the twins are all bad, though. They care about their mother’s happiness so much that they’d really like to get her laid. And with rampant maturity reverberating from her vocal cords, Twin #1 says that she wants to find a guy who will “put his P in her V.” Listen, finding one’s mother cock is, I suppose, a very original Mother’s Day present. All I got my mother was jewelry! Unfortunately, even some P will not get their mother to back down from this producer-enforced moving out talk, so the girls take to their beds like characters on the verge of death in a Lifetime movie. It’s raining outside and sad face emojis waft across the screen as the twins cuddle up and discuss how their mother telling them to consider growing up is the single worst thing they’ve ever experienced in their lives – and then I had to go get a new television set because I threw a boulder at the screen. Once my new TV was installed, I listened as Twin #1 said, “It’s just not fair,” and Twin #2 agreed with her by saying, “I don’t want someone to not take care of me.” What will they do, you ask? Well, they will do what everyone experiencing a dual existential crisis does: they’ll visit their grandmother who’s also an astrologer! Both twins feel like they might have some of their grandmother’s psychic gifts, as evidenced by Twin #2 saying, a la Mean Girls, that she must be intuitive because she knows it’s about to rain by the fact that her nipples get hard. That delightful (and totally cribbed) sentence is then adorably illustrated by footage of an ice cream sundae that gets a cherry put on top of it and that’s about when I paused the show briefly so I could go take a shower with some bleach causing this program with a running time of about forty minutes to take me hours to finish it.
As they’re not willing to listen to Psychic Granny, they decide instead that they can win back their mother’s love and simultaneously prove they’re as “adult A.F.” by cooking their mom a gourmet meal so they visit a supermarket for the very first time to purchase ingredients for duck a l’orange and steamed lobster. In what I’m betting we’re supposed to see as dramatic irony, they charge the food to their mother’s credit card, but this is the one thing from the show I think is probably accurate because I’d be surprised if these two have any real credit in spite of the fortune they must be raking in by hawking bloat-busting teas on Instagram.
Once they arrive home and start cooking, all is going well until it’s time for them to murder a lobster. They have a hard time doing it – which I understand – so instead they decide to let the lobster live and they introduce him to their imaginary fish and plop him into the tank and they name their new pet Pinchy and I think we’re supposed to find all of this adorable. The duck, however, was already dead when they bought him so they cook the sucker and manage not to burn the house down and they master the vocabulary word “seasonings” and such accomplishments must mean their mommy will let them stay in that house forever even though that would mean a producer would have to go back to the drawing board to come up with a new storyline for this terrible series, especially because falling off hoverboards in the kitchen and shattering glass is so episode one.
As their mother eats, the twins stand behind like a cartoon illustration of her subconscious. They manage not to poison her, but that’s not enough for her to change her mind. Realizing the gravity of the situation and how desperately they need advice on how to become adults, they turn to their greatest living idols, Ben and Lauren, aka The Bachelor who rejected them and the chick he ended up choosing. Yes, Ben and Lauren are the two most inspiring people Twin #1 and Twin #2 have ever met, so these people are brought to the house to bring wisdom and – hopefully – higher ratings. Upon their arrival, the dogs attempt to maul Ben because the network asked not just for him to appear on episode one, but to maybe also be down for some mild bloodshed. The moment didn’t go as planned because the dogs backed off and the guy made it out with all of his limbs, but maybe he can be ripped to shreds during the finale.
Once it’s clear that Ben will not have to be rushed into triage, Lauren buckles down and plays the role she was given by asking the twins about what their dream jobs would be – and their answer is they have always wanted to be mermaids. To be fair, I used to say that I wanted to be a water tower. But also to be fair, I was four years old the last time I said such a thing. As they are getting nowhere in the Dream Career department, Ben and Lauren decide to meet the twins out for a fancy dinner to which the twins arrive incredibly late in what I’m positive was not a set-up in the slightest. The menu in the nice restaurant terrifies them; they only eat food typically served at Chuck E Cheese and being exposed to foie gras might legitimately kill them. Still, they learn some hugely important Life Lessons over the scary meal that will potentially carry them through this next difficult stage where they will be all alone unless you count the full camera crew who will be with them constantly to record their every idiotic statement.
Life Lesson #1: You do not get salmonella from salmon.
Life Lesson #2: Gagging at the table on a bite of escargot secures you a full season of your own show, even if it’s on a channel nobody can find without a GPS.
Life Lesson #3: After Twin #1 bravely takes a bite of octopus, Ben remarks, “At least you’re putting it in your mouth. That’s a start.” And that right there is a life lesson I’ll stand behind because it’s somewhat rooted in reality.
The twins refrain from vomiting all over the table and such restraint causes their greatest living male inspiration to commend them for trying new foods and then he informs them that it’s time to start saying “yes” to life so they can grown up and experience new things and their obvious response – or rather the producer’s obvious response – is that saying “yes” to life and proving once and for all that they’re adult A.F. means one of them should bungee jump eighty stories off the highest structure in all of Las Vegas. And atop that building, Twin #1 is harnessed in by a guy who claims he’s only worked there for three days because the episode required more conflict so pretending one of them could die seemed the way to go. The drop looks scary as hell – I’d never do it – but I’d also never be on a reality show with a premise that I’m a total idiot who kisses a poster of one of The Bachelors every morning before wandering into the world to prove I can “adult.” Before Twin #1 has a full nervous breakdown, she first attempts to pull out the tired metaphor always used on The Bachelor whenever the guy decides the perfect date with the woman he’ll eventually break an engagement with is to repel off a building or jump into shark-infested waters while the girl is on the rag. Yes, Twin #1 announces that if she can take this physical leap, she can surely take all the symbolic leaps coming her way, but she cries her eyes out as the episode ends and she finally says that she can’t do it and if jumping off a building is what it means to grow up, she has no interest. Really, these two should have started small and instead of leaping into nothingness they could have, I don’t know, paid an electric bill – but I guess there’s just no emoji for such a thing.
The coming attractions for the season (which I will not watch unless the family from Get Out captures me and puts this show on a loop while I’m restrained) show the twins falling down, screaming, impersonating gorillas in some sort of exercise class, having people eat sushi off their bodies, swearing that they’re trying “to adult” as David Hasselhoff (?) watches, and then peeing on a stick on camera for a DNA test that eventually proves they’re part Neanderthal – and my guess is that somewhere both Mike Fleiss and Mike Darnell are giggling while raising their glasses in a toast to the toppling world they helped to create.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Also be sure to check out her website at nellkalter.com Her Twitter is @nell_kalter