Just a heads-up, readers. Take this and the next few Critic’s Corners with a fat pinch of salt, because while Matthew Gilbert is away (Good luck on “Fear Factor”!) (That’s a guess.) you’ll be hearing from someone who just thought about it for 10 minutes or so and has concluded that “America’s Next Top Model” might be his favorite show. What I’m saying is it’s gonna be a week here in the Corner.
If somehow you’ve never seen an episode of “America’s Next Top Model,” I recommend going back the full 24 seasons to the 2003 pilot episode and starting there. At about 300 total episodes at 40 or so minutes each, you’re looking at about 200 hours, or 8½ days of viewing time. Factor in sleep/jobs/kids/whatever and you’ve still got more than enough time to fully self-educate and catch up before this triumphant newest season (on VH1 Tuesday from 8 to 10 p.m.) reaches its inevitably sobby conclusion. But really, you have to start at the beginning. It’s kind of like “Lost,” but there’s no infuriating ending in sight. Only continuous “ANTM” ecstasy.
Tyra Banks’s pioneering fashion competition show may seem like a run-of-the-mill reality operation in which tall girls from small towns receive vague posing directions like “you’re a cheetah with a secret” and compete for coveted cover shoots within the fast-dissolving polar ice of print fashion media, but it’s so much more than that. I much prefer to think of “America’s Next Top Model” as an extensive verite meta-documentary charting the slow psychological unraveling of Tyra Banks.
“ANTM” set the standard early on for now-commonplace gag-worthy reality show tropes (so much fainting, and storming off, and underbus-throwing!). But Tyra’s royal reading of chronically over-it contestant Tiffany from Cycle 4 — what some might call her Gettysburg — was a turning point for the series, transforming it from a succession of routine elimination challenges into an endurance study of the strange inner world of Tyra — the one behind the smize — and how she projects that world onto the canvas of her reality and whomever happens to be standing around. This idea seems to crystallize in the churning epicenter of the Cycle 15 motion editorials, and has since exploded outward in a kind of chaotic symmetry. (And you thought Episode 8 of “Twin Peaks: The Return” was intense.)
Watch the entirety of “ANTM” in this context and you may see Tyra as heiress-apparent to experimental masters in the vein of Chantal Akerman. Or just watch it until Cycle 15 so you can see Ann’s rollerskating fitness water commercial. It’s . . . [cartoon-chef finger kiss] amazing.
And surprisingly, this current 24th cycle — which finds Banks restored to queen mother status after letting Rita Ora baby-sit for a year — isn’t showing its years (despite removing its maximum age cap). While the intra-model unrest and the bizarre fashions and matching challenges from episode to episode all seem vaguely familiar (Tuesday’s is the perennial favorite “go-see” challenge), Banks and cohorts Ashley Graham, Drew Elliott, and Law Roach make for a perfectly watchable panel, full of effervescently catty and hopelessly impractical advice.
Who will win the title this cycle? It hardly matters. What matters is that we all get a stiff dose of the reality-shaking awareness that all of this — and perhaps all of us — may just be a simulation taking place in Tyra’ s imagination. Did I mention this show is best experienced with a fever?Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.