In this golden age of reality shows, the message seems to be that 'if it's not on TV, it barely exists'. Conversely, if you do make it onto the small screen, even for doing mundane things such as redecorating your spare bedroom or living with a football player, your life is suddenly more meaningful than your pitiable, untelevised peers.
The most common type of reality programming runs on the formula that yokes B-minus-list celebrities such as Paris Hilton, the Kardashians or Gene Simmons and asks them to belt out cover songs, sew a dress, fit into a size-zero outfit or pander to the ridiculous while pretending that it's normal to compete for the right to marry a stranger or get thrown into a tank full of tarantulas to measure the 'fear factor'. In the ersatz world of reality television there are other shows; those that push towards the outer reaches of sanity in their quest to be 'more real'. Plotted against the axes of privacy invasion, technical difficulty and sheer randomness of subject, these are the ones that actually merit a second look.
My Dog Ate What? (above right; Nat Geo Wild, Sundays at 11pm) pokes around in the stomach of man's best friend. It's incredible that a 10-episode series can be made around such an invasion of gastric privacy. Amazingly, the pet owners seem sold on the importance of sharing with the world the crazy things their dogs have eaten. Good-naturedly, they participate in graphic re-enactments of household chaos and emergency vet visits that invariably end with Fluffy or Ziggy lying on the operating table while squeaky toys, glass shards or large rocks are extracted from their stomachs. The enthusiasm with which these lovely people air their pet's dirty secrets - rather than the secrets themselves - is the real shocker here.
Pawn Stars (The History Channel; Thursdays at 11pm) follows the professional lives of the Harrisons - the owners of the always-open Gold and Silver Pawn Shop. One man's treasure is another's collateral and Rick, his father, Richard, and son, Corey, make the most of people's cash-flow problems in amassing a warehouse full of their possessions. Flashy, high-value items such as customised choppers and vintage rifles get the most airtime; the constant bickering of the Harrisons comes a close second. Those who remember the heyday of Hong Kong's own cash-credit industry will appreciate the delicate dance of pawning.
Deadliest Catch (Discovery Channel; Mondays at 11pm) follows eight to 10 boats and their crews through two crab-fishing seasons. The show emphasises the real danger to the fishermen and camera crews on the decks of these boats. Accidents and deaths are frequent in the industry, and because Alaskan crab fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, the United States Coast Guard rescue squads are frequently shown doing their own dangerous work: rescuing crab-boat crew members who have been undone by the harsh conditions of the Bering Sea. It's unlikely that any participant of wilderness or extreme challenge 'reality' shows such as Fear Factor or Survivor would make it back alive from one of these long-haul fishing trips. So hats off to the dedicated fishermen, coast guards and camera crews who put their life on the line for our viewing pleasure: whatever the contents, the stomachs on these men are not weak ones.