The VH1 reality show Flavor Of Love Girls: Charm School had its season finale last week, and its "reunion" show last night. The reunion really crystallized my thoughts on the entire show, which were, more or less, that it was the greatest thing comedian/actress/host Mo'nique's ever gonna be associated with, and that VH1 really had no idea what they were getting when they green-lit the project.
Comedy is based in rage; sometimes it's well concealed, but frequently it's not. Mo'nique's work keeps the rage bubbling right below the surface, and a lot of it is based on race and class issues. She's written two books: 2004's Skinny Women Are Evil: Notes Of A Big Girl In A Small-Minded World and 2006's Skinny Cooks Can't Be Trusted, a cookbook padded out with comic anecdotes. Charm School, though, was a whole different animal. It put Mo'nique in the role of host/mentor/judge, jury and executioner, and along the way exposed the fault lines running through race and class in America, as highlighted and (some might say) exacerbated by reality TV.
The two seasons of VH1's Flavor Of Love were a horrorshow, a slow-motion car wreck in which ghetto women of every race, but mostly black women, abased and humiliated themselves in order to win the love of, or maybe just fame by association with, Public Enemy's cracked-out hypeman Flavor Flav. They got sloppy drunk, beat each other up, lap-danced Flav and whatever second- and third-tier rappers made cameos on the show...one woman shit on the living room floor, possibly because running up the stairs to the ladies' room would have meant being off-camera for a moment. The entire show was an exercise in degradation, sullying everyone involved, from Flav and the women to the producers who put the thing on the air, to the audience. And I count myself as one of the injured parties, because I watched damn near every episode, and can't now come up with a good reason why.
Well, Mo'nique was watching, too, and she didn't like what she saw. So she corralled the most egregious, Springer-esque women from the two seasons, and brought them back for "charm school." Each week, one girl would be voted out, and the eventual last woman standing would receive $50,000 to make something of herself.
From its opening moments, the show was a slap in the face not only to the women, for what they'd allowed themselves to become while on Flavor Of Love, but to the viewers who'd watched before, and to the people who'd put the parent show on the air. Mo'nique addressed the women, who'd arrived in a half-sized school bus like the ones Special Ed kids ride in, before permitting them entry into the house, and she explained that she had been watching the shows, and, in her words, "America was not laughing with you, ladies; America was laughing at you." Once they were ensconced in the house (with assigned beds, to short-circuit any battles for prime real estate), each woman was required to surrender the odious nickname bestowed upon her by Flavor Flav; for the rest of the season, they would be exploring who they really were, under their real names.
There was a certain amount of reality TV superficiality to Charm School - the women ran a military obstacle course, and learned how to comport themselves on celebrity interview shows - but there were lessons worth learning offered as well. In one late episode, the women were confronted with their own badly damaged guy-radar, as they were asked to pick the best man out of a group of five or six. None picked the successful businessman; all picked guys who were either parolees or mama's boys expecting women to wait on them hand and foot. And one woman got drunk and all but naked on the dance floor, resulting in her eviction.
Every time Mo'nique evicted a woman, she seemed genuinely sorrowful, both for the bad behavior that had resulted in the eviction and for the opportunities she was unable to provide for all of them. The show was basically a slow and steady refutation of everything Flavor Of Love had tried to pin on these women. Mo'nique was determined, and the wrath in her glare frequently showed just how determined, to make these women confront themselves, and regain the dignity they'd so willingly surrendered for a few weeks of pseudo-fame. At the same time, she was shoving it in the viewers' faces, and the producers' faces. "See," she seemed to shout at us with every episode. "These are real people. They feel real pain. How dare you humiliate them, mock them. How dare you."
Which made the reunion show the season's crowning moment, psychodrama of the highest order. Because some of the women evicted from the house took Mo'nique's advice to heart, but others didn't. And when they reappeared on the stage, they seemed ready to slip back into the crass, profane, hair-trigger combative self-caricatures they'd been when we first encountered them. But Mo'nique wasn't going to let that happen. From her thronelike seat on the stage, she berated her former charges, insisting that they get through one hour of television without needing to be bleeped every third word, without punching or pulling each other's hair, without failing themselves and her. Brooke, the blond girl who'd gotten drunk and ground all over two men at the "mixer," was asked what her granddaughter might think of her behavior, and she looked genuinely shocked at the question, before opting for some babble about how white women weren't as conservative about public displays of sexuality as black women, so it was okay, it was just "flirting." (Mo'nique - and Becky, the other white contestant - nearly slapped her, but didn't.)
The show's concluding moments were the most powerful, though. Mo'nique confronted two women, Shay and Larissa, who'd joined forces to betray and hurt other contestants, and then had a falling out when Shay had qualms about their behavior, thus inviting contempt and the "snitch" label from Larissa. When she initially appeared, on camera from backstage, Larissa was in full Maury Povich mode, cursing and shouting over the host and Shay and anyone else who would dare try to point out her wrongness. When she strutted out onstage, she even yelled at Mo'nique, telling her she was "full of shit" and claiming Mo'nique had had it in for her since the beginning of the show. (A fair point, actually - Larissa was the one girl Mo'nique genuinely seemed to dislike.) But rather than shout back, Mo'nique began to lecture Larissa - and Larissa's mother, who clambered out of the audience to defend her daughter - about what kind of message her behavior was sending to the wider world. Not about what she could do for herself, but about what she could do for the people watching by acting like a rational human being instead of a blackface daytime-talk-show caricature. And as the credits rolled over a conversation that was still ongoing, at full intensity, Mo'nique's achievement was complete. Watching Jerry Springer or Maury Povich or Flavor Of Love can make you hate humanity. But with Charm School, Mo'nique tried to make you hate the producers who create such shows, and incite - whether with booze, male strippers, off-camera egging-on, or whatever - the poor and minority people who appear on them to humiliate themselves and each other. And, to my mind, she succeeded. Of course, there will continue to be shows like these. A new one, Rock Of Love, a sort of white version of Flavor Of Love with Poison frontman Bret Michaels as the center of the storm, will premiere next week. But I don't think they'll be seen in quite the same light. VH1, probably at least in part unwittingly, let Mo'nique come into their world, tear back the curtain, and point fingers. Good for her; not so good for them.