H8R

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff and Brandon Nowalk look at H8R.

H8R debuts tonight on The CW at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Todd: There’s an inherent power imbalance behind the idea of bullying. The guys who picked on me in high school were basketball team stars to my band geek, and when I took out that aggression elsewhere, I took it out on middle schoolers who looked up to me. (None of us are terribly good people at 15, huh?) If one of you in the comments says, “VanDerWerff, your writing fucking sucks, and it’s ruined this site,” that’s not bullying because I have all of the power. In my role as a staff member for The A.V. Club, I can delete your comment or ban you or just go down and say something extra-snarky to try to put you in your place. What you’re doing—no matter how inelegantly—is criticizing my performance, and if I try to shut you up, that’s bullying. Or, while we’re on the subject, in the movie Captain America, when the would-be Captain America says he wants to fight Nazis because he likes standing up to bullies for the little guy, he’s more or less diagnosing bullying correctly (give or take a Soviet Union, which was only acting in self-defense, but whatever; we didn’t come here to argue about the true nature of World War II).

The central problem with H8R—the CW’s new reality show and not just the worst new show of the fall season but the worst show of the fall season by a significant margin—is that it seems to really think it’s doing something good for the world. It really seems to think that in a time of 9 percent unemployment, a poverty rate that’s higher than it’s been at any point since the ’90s, and potential worldwide environmental and/or economic collapse, the thing we really need to worry about is bullying. And, honestly, I wouldn’t mind that if the show at least tried to make a fairly honest show about bullies and the bullied being forced to hang out together and realizing they have something in common. Make a show where bullies realize the pain they inflict on those weaker than them, and you might have something that would inspire one or two kids to stop being so mean to the weird kid in their class. It wouldn’t prop up the Euro, but it’d be something.

But H8R doesn’t understand what bullying is. Or, worse, it came up with that excuse as a lousy way to cover its own gargantuan, grotesque ass with a single sheet of toilet paper when it realized that the way it was originally being sold—celebrities have people say mean things about them, and that’s just WAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!—was ridiculous at best and offensive at worst. H8R really seems to think that something you’re about to do (because I’m going to tell you to do it) is the worst possible thing someone can do to a person and the worst possible crime toward humanity out there.

I want you to scroll back to the top of this review (don’t worry, I’ll bold the part where you come back in) and look at that picture of Mario Lopez atop it. Look at that picture of his rigid grin, his unmoving dimples, his jaunty hair. Really stare at it, until you get a good sense of what he’s all about. I know you folks, so I know what’s going on in your heads, and I know it’s probably not very nice. Yeah, I hear you. You’re going to make fun of his appearance or his role as A.C. Slater on Saved By The Bell or his toadying toward celebrities on Extra or something. And then you’re going to comment to that effect, in an attempt to one-up everybody else and make sure your joke is the funniest.

Go ahead. Scroll up. Comment. I’ll bold.

Congratulations, everybody. In his view of things, you just “bullied” Mario Lopez. This puts you in league with the stars of the 1997 South Dakota Class B High School Basketball champions, the Nazis, and me. Feel good about that?

Actually, you should feel good about that. You should feel fucking amazing about that. And it’s not just because this is a country where we have freedom of speech, and it’s not just because it’s really damn hard for the weak to bully the strong, and it’s not just because Mario Lopez and the producers of H8R are insipid and vapid and don’t seem to realize just how terrible and offensive their show is (not to mention that it’s an utter failure at the most basic levels of making entertaining television). It’s because you, whoever you are, have less power in this world than Lopez, the many reality show stars he brings on H8R, or the producers of the show, and you only have two ways to fight back: You can choose not to consume their product (which I would urge you to do), or you can call them the most inventive made-up curse words you can think of. Because make no mistake about it: H8R wants to shut you up. It doesn’t just want you to stop saying mean things. It wants you to stop expressing any criticism of someone richer and more famous than yourself—whether that person is Snooki or Barack Obama—at all. It wants to put me out of a job. It wants to shut down this website. It wants you to motherfucking love Big Brother (both the concept and the TV show).

I haven’t even really expressed what, exactly, H8R is about, since it angers me so. But the idea actually is the sort of thing that might have worked for dumb reality fun with a slight shift in perspective on the part of the producers (which include reality guru Mike Fleiss and Lopez). In H8R, celebrities—usually low-level ones who are most famous for reality show stints (though Eva Longoria and Ron Artest are in the “coming up on” package)—are forced to hang out with random people Lopez and the producers have found. These random people have said mean things about said celebrities on the Internet. Hanging out with the celebrities is, of course, just as much of a chore for the everyday citizens as it is for the celebrities. Through this process, Lopez and the producers hope the anonymous Internet “haters” will get to see the “real” side of these “celebrities,” and maybe they’ll think twice the next time they say something mean. Again, there’s a way to make this dumb fun. Seeing celebrities confronted with the depths of the hatred the “haters” have against them could be funny, and so could such things as Snooki and her “hater,” Nick, going shopping at the grocery store to prepare a meal to eat with his family. There’s stuff in here that could be a silly diversion if the show didn’t foist its view on everything.

But the show so completely and totally takes the side of the celebrities being made fun of that it somehow becomes even more bullying than anything anonymous Internet trolls said to begin with. When we first see what Nick doesn’t like about Snooki, we don’t hear any sort of insane, psychotic monologue of hate. We see that he hates that she gets paid a lot of money to go on TV and act like an idiot. We learn that he hates that she has a crappy book. We learn that he’s mad, mostly, about how she’s famous for being famous. (Snooki, learning of the second charge, sniffs, “Did you read my book? Because if you did, you would know it was really good.”) As Snooki confronts Nick about how he doesn’t know the “real” her, Lopez sits in a limo and chuckles about how she’s getting Nick good. But of course Nick doesn’t know the “real” Snooki! He knows the fake Snooki, the one she chooses to portray and put forward on TV, the one she became famous for! Should he really be asked to, every time he thinks the slightest mean thought about Snooki, not post it on the Internet or even think it? Should he really force himself to remember, “Shit, Snooki contains multitudes!” every time he has a negative thought about her?

Because you know what? Of course people are going to come to slightly more positive opinions of each other after being forced to hang out with each other. That’s how Stockholm syndrome works, after all. The more time you spend with someone, the more you’ll see that they’re not just whatever stereotypical image you have of them and that they, indeed, have many of the same emotions and psychological drives as you do. If you spent a lot of time with Snooki or former Bachelor star Jake Pavelka (the second of tonight’s two celebrities), you’d probably realize that they, like you, are walking contradictions, people both interesting and fascinating, who contain yin and yang, black and white, God and Satan.

But the people that Snooki and Pavelka portray on TV don’t contain those contradictions. They’re TV characters, plain and simple. When Pavelka struts around a hotel pool acting like a douchebag for his “hater,” 20-year-old Danielle (a whip-smart spitfire who’s been edited into oblivion, I fear) and she concludes that he’s a douchebag, just like he appeared to be on TV, why on Earth are we supposed to feel sorry for him? Why on Earth is she supposed to conclude from this that he’s not what he appears to be on TV? (Lopez sure seems to think he’s proving something.) Later, when Pavelka takes Danielle on a weird version of a Bachelor date (the show has many of the same rhythms as a dating show, which makes it even more disconcerting), including taking her up in a plane and eventually to the house where they film the show, she quite rightly concludes that all of this is an act, an attempt by a charming man to coddle her and say exactly what she wants to hear or what will make him look good. She asks him to list five good things about himself, and he gets out, “Five good things about me? I’ve never cheated on a woman. I’m honest. I have good values. Morally, I’m great,” before she cuts him off and points out how these are more empty bullshit platitudes, then storms off. Pavelka cries after her, “You hate me for lies!” We’re supposed to feel sorry for him.

But Danielle doesn’t hate Jake Pavelka for lies. Maybe Pavelka feels he got a raw deal after willingly going on a reality show that he knew would subject whatever incipient relationship he had to the tough glare of the spotlights. Maybe he remembers a time when he was just Jake Pavelka, a pilot who sometimes charmed girls, and not “Jake Pavelka,” reality show cad. But it’s not like he can stuff that genie back into the bottle, and it’s not like he can do it by opening up in only the most shallow way possible. Tellingly, when Danielle storms out of the room and says she’s had it with Pavelka, the camera stays with him, talking about how impossible it is to get through to her. Of course it is, Jake. She’s under no obligation to like you, and if she doesn’t, it doesn’t mean she’s a bad person; it just means you whored yourself out for fame (even by appearing on this show) and didn’t like the fact that being famous also meant you didn’t constantly get your ass kissed, that there’s a whole world out there waiting to judge instantaneously because that’s what everybody does to everybody all of the time.

And this isn’t just about Internet comments. Oh no. Earlier in the episode, as Snooki talks with Nick’s family, his mother says that she doesn’t really like Jersey Shore. Why doesn’t she like it? Well, she thinks that the people on the show—including Snooki—set bad examples for kids like hers, and she doesn’t want to have others looking up to those people as role models. Keep in mind that Nick’s mom isn’t criticizing Snooki directly here; she’s criticizing the way the show chooses to portray her (as well as the way she portrays herself on the program). But the show treats this as almost as grave a threat as Nick’s tossed off insults. Any criticism whatsoever, you see, lines you up with those who are haters. Express a negative thought about one of Mario Lopez’s gaggle of idiotic friends, and you’re a bad person. Criticism should die because it’s not in line with whatever Lopez’s dream of constant positivity is, and that means you insulters in comments are bad, sure, but not as bad as me for pointing out this show is a pile of shit. (In the “coming up on” package at the end of tonight’s premiere, there’s a segment where a mother tells Joe Francis—the founder of Girls Gone Wild—that he’s every parent’s worst nightmare, and we’re supposed to feel bad for Joe Francis. Joe motherfucking Francis!)

And if that’s not enough, the show fails on even the most basic levels of entertainment. Think about the most basic description of the show: Two people hang out together and hopefully learn to get along. Does that sound like it contains any sort of conflict? Does it sound like it’s got an arc that would be at all entertaining? The most “entertaining” parts of each episode are when the haters launch into the celebrities who’ve just surprised them at their favorite hangouts (or the locations the reality show scouts chose for them) and the celebrities can’t think of anything to say other than, “You don’t know me!” (Even these are ruined by constant cutaways to Lopez jittering around and giggling manically in some nearby undisclosed location that feels like a bunker for the coming class wars.) At least in these sections, there’s something like conflict. After that, the show settles into a long section where the celebrities point out that they’re better than their reputations and constantly ask the “haters” if their opinion has budged even an iota. This section is dreadfully, dreadfully boring, with absolutely no conflict and just a lot of Snooki and Pavelka talking about their feelings. It’s not just often offensive, misguided television; it’s dramatically inert and unappealing.

It’s always tricky to explain why an abysmal show is so bad. In many cases, it’s easy for a critic to go over the top and say so much that whatever airs just feels like a bland, boring mess, maybe, but not a crime against God and man. Whatever I say about H8R, if you decide to watch it tonight, you’ll surely soon be disappointed that it doesn’t just consist of Mario Lopez kicking people who are mean to Snooki on the Internet in the nuts (though, indeed, that would be a better show, because at least it would be more honest about its aims). And, yeah, I get the idea of watching something that’s so bad it’s good or watching something that might make a guilty pleasure. But it’s rare to find a show that’s this awful and rage-inducing while still being so goddamned boring. Maybe my utter anger will strike you as curious when you see this thing, but I still can’t imagine a single one of you defending it.

So you know what? Do what I’d recommend. Don’t watch. Feel free to judge this show without knowing all the facts, even if Mario Lopez wouldn’t want it that way. Feel free to go up and look at his glib, smiling mug and write all kinds of nasty, mean things about him below. He’s still going to be sitting in a big house on a pile of money, while the rest of us schmoes figure out fun new ways to pay the electric bill. He’s still going to be the doofus who thought any of this was a good idea. And he’s completely, eminently worthy of your insults. Say the worst fucking thing you can think of about him. He can take it. He wouldn’t have gotten where he is if he couldn’t. Even better: Say it about me. I’m the asshole who just wrote nearly 3,000 words about a piece of shit reality show and did so inelegantly. I can take it, too. Take that power back. Fuck all those guys.

I’m not you. As a critic, the lowest form of life in the H8R-verse, I have to maintain a sense of decorum. So I’ll say this to Mario Lopez and everybody else involved with the show on a creative level instead: This is a shoo-in for the worst show of the year and maybe even the decade. I hope it’s ushered off the airwaves after one airing, and I hope that someday, you realize how craven, crass, and awful it really was. But more than anything, I hope you read this, and I hope you read the comments, and I hope you get, for one second, what it really feels like to have someone bigger, stronger, and more powerful than you stomp on your toes and spit in your face every day. Maybe when you were younger, there was a person who did that to you. Maybe you know how much it hurts. Maybe you’ll remember that it’s pretty much nothing like someone saying Snooki’s book was awful without reading it. And maybe you’ll realize that whatever H8R is, it doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with making the world a better place.

Brandon: H8R isn’t even the best version of H8R, which looks and sounds like a bootleg of Blind Date. Even E! would be embarrassed of the Hollywood montages, and the camera has two modes: “napping” and “crack high.” The Snooki segment is particularly dangerous to expectant mothers and those with heart conditions, chopping and zooming and trying desperately to find a focus like it’s J.J. Abrams’ secret love-child with Guy Ritchie. Of course, this is all a feint to disguise how boring it is to watch D-listers try to form coherent arguments. The secret to getting through the hour is to drink every time the cameraman nods off, dropping from Slater’s sycophantic grin to his desperate hand movements before politely recovering.

It probably sounds like I’m judging a book by its cover, so I won’t harp on the noxious title. The fact is, the pilot of H8R is only redeeming as an accidental expose on Hollywood desperation, but it’s even losing that race to the reality shows its unknown celebrities come from. (By the way, “one of the most romantic Bachelor proposals of all time” doesn’t quite have the wistful ring you think it does, Slater.) Sure it has chestnuts on how we all contain multitudes and how ad hominem is a fallacy and how bullying is wrong, whether or not any bullying actually occurs on the show, but it’s packaged in the same complacent celebrity worship as the tabloids it trashes. But, hey, we all learned something, right?

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