If Saturday Night Live were as hip and edgy as it desperately pretends to be, one of its flagship sketches this season would most certainly be a recurring parody of The Pickup Artist (VH1, Monday nights at 9:00). Lorne Michaels' stable of myopic writers wouldn't have to look too far to find the funny with this one, because all the elements are already in place: a storyline (how to meet, greet and bed women, more or less in that order) rife with pretention and humiliation; a calculatedly eccentric guru with delusions of grandeur; a tone that combines the raunchy and the heartfelt in a manner that suggests chemical imbalance--all part of a reality-show evidently so bad no self-respecting critic will review it. Well, I'll review it, and to paraphrase a book review I once read at Salon.com, it's the worst show I've ever loved.
For starters, the storyline offers an irresistible hook: eight (allegedly) lonely guys with (allegedly) problematic social skills compete in a "boot camp" where they (allegedly) learn how to become more successful with women. Presiding over the festivities is Mystery, the nom de plume of a tall pale stringbean who wears black nailpolish and eyeliner and oversized Dr. Seuss hats, the kind of tool who would be easy to dismiss were he not such a keen observer and gifted teacher of social dynamics. During this summer's run of episodes, Mystery taught his students how to create an "avatar" (a pick-up persona), how to "neg" (offer a backhanded compliment to show lack of interest--e.g.,"Did you know that your nose wiggles when you're angry?"--which, paradoxically, makes a woman more interested in you), learn to read "IOIs" (Indicators of Interest) and "bounce" to another location (go on a mini-date). An amalgam of Casanova, Herbert Spencer, and the Buddha, Mystery offered weekly challenges to the contestants and eliminated them one-by-one, until the winner was--well, the person I predicted from the start, actually. Somebody actually not unattractive or socially inept at all.
I mentioned the word (allegedly) earlier because, like most reality shows, there have been questions regarding The Pickup Artist's authenticity. The two finalists, a Latino who dubbed himself Kosmo and a faux-platinum blonde named Brady (a Light vs. Dark showdown that the show's creators must have found demographically irresistible), have been called out as, respectively, an actor and a model. Even worse was the lingering of Pradeep, a genuinely dorky motormouth who was unconvincingly carved into a Machiavellian villain by carrying out such atrocities as "cheating" during a reward-challenge reading of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" (no, really) and slapping another contestant on the cheek, with the subtle aid of an effect that sounded like the giant boulder that lands before the Uruk-Hai army in The Return of the King. That Pradeep and his tiresome shenanigans were allowed all the way to the final four smacked of more producer-meddling, as if they didn't trust that the premise would be compelling enough.
Which is a shame, because beneath the shiftiness and folderol, The Pickup Artist has a lot of things that distinguish it from other reality shows. This season (its first) was briskly paced, took advantage of a fresh location in Austin, Texas, had an agile sense of humor, and featured a group of competitors who--Pradeep notwithstanding--were likable, sympathetic and amazingly supportive. For every one of Mystery's tests that was predictably raunchy (picking up an exotic dancer) there were others, like having to engage a group of kindergartners on the strength of your storytelling ("If you can hold their attention, you can hold anyone's" said Mystery), or trying to "open" (strike up a conversation) with a walker or jogger on a pedestrian bridge, that were frequently surprising. (This latter challenge led to the entire season's funniest moment, where the six-feet-five-inch Mystery covertly watched them while disguised with a fake beard, in the least convincing act of camouflage since Peter the Great toured Europe dressed as a peasant.)
And if the outcome was predictable, the final challenge, featuring Kosmo and Brady not going mano-a-mano but rather each having to teach another AFC (Average Frustrated Chump) the tools of the trade in only one night (which a colleague compared to the Montessori Method), was unexpectedly sublime.
It was Neil Strauss' The Game, a 2005 chronicle of the author's successful foray into "seduction community" that introduced Mystery and his fellow pickup artists to the world (with a cameo by Courtney Love as the Voice Of Reason). Strauss' book is a buoyant romp that also has some dark corners (e.g., Mystery's violent and suicidal tendencies). The Pickup Artist smooths out those rough edges and leaves only buoyancy, with the winner earning (along with $50K) the ostensible privilege of becoming one of Mystery's "wingmen" a la Matador and J-Dogg, whose monikers suggested an emptiness that was plainly visible by how little they were given to do on the show. As the series has been renewed for a second season, I'm left hoping that these lackeys will be allotted more responsibilities and clearly defined personalities, but I suspect that the show will become even more of an ego-trip for its titular character, its contestants more Pradeepian in their machinations and combativeness.
Still, the central conceit of The Pickup Artist--that understanding women can actually be learned--is fool-proof for much of its audience; and for all of his own foolishness Mystery, at his best, takes something that is deeply scary for a lot of men and turns it into fun. If you don't believe me, has anyone ever told you that your nose wiggles when you're skeptical?