Choose Your Own Misadventure

ToddTV is reality television’s first meta-show.

Reality TV gerbil Todd

Todd Santos, star of ToddTV (FX, Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET), is a reality television first: a reluctant hero. Last night, in a particularly surly moment, Todd slouched and smirked his way through the windup to a set piece intended to improve his relationships with women. Dating expert Renee Piane was on hand to help the 30-year-old waiter and aspiring musician, but when Piane explained that Todd had to take part in a round of “rapid dating,” he winced visibly. “How do you feel about that?” she said. “I don’t feel good about it,” shot back Todd, who can be as petulant as a teenager. “If I had wanted to go on a dating show I could have gone on a hundred by now.”

That’s a strange thing to say, and an even stranger thing for a reality show to include in a final cut. Typically, the creators of such shows remove self-conscious references lest we end up with hours of “Can you believe it? We’re totally on Elimidate!” But ToddTV lets its star talk to the camera, beg off the crew when they come in for close-ups, and fight with the producers about whether or not they’re allowed to film him in the shower. The atmosphere of the show is loose and off-the-cuff, and it’s not uncommon to see a boom mic or hear an off-camera PA snickering behind Todd’s back. Even the show’s snarky host, George Gray, openly mocks Todd; when Todd complains, Gray offers only a shrug and a “Welcome to ToddTV, bro.”

The ostensible premise of ToddTV is that Todd has abandoned his free will—not to mention his privacy—and put his fate in the hands of the American viewing public, who direct his actions through e-mailed suggestions and weekly votes in an effort to help him reinvent his sorry life. (Todd is so hopelessly disorganized that he neglects to deposit three months’ worth of paychecks despite being overdrawn at the bank.) But the show is really about a guy who gets his own reality show and then immediately realizes that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Todd has been forced to quit his job in favor of a paper route, go out with a woman he used to date and doesn’t like, and live with his television-appointed therapist. It’s as if he’s trapped in some warped Choose Your Own Adventure novel. The fact that he knows better only makes the comedy more acute. In the first episode, Todd jokingly ran from the contract presented to him by Gray. When Todd finally did sign, he deadpanned, “If you can trust anyone, it’s reality television.”

Todd has good reason not to trust ToddTV, but I trust its creators, if only because they’re honest about the fact that they’re making a minor, made-for-cable reality show with an absurd premise and a lazy, half-assed star. All this meta-reality also has some humorous side effects. ToddTV captures a Los Angeles overrun by reality television and its has-beens, castoffs, and wannabes. Suzanne, the woman Todd was forced to date, appeared on The Bachelor; he’s also friends with Nicole, a veteran of Survivor. When Nicole talks about how hard reality shows can be on the participants, she sounds like an old sailor talking about the perils of the sea. It’s almost as though, if you’re of a certain age and class and living in L.A., appearing on a reality show is an eventuality. When Suzanne spots Todd at the Laundromat and asks him what’s new in his life, he answers without enthusiasm. “Just ToddTV so far,” he mumbles while loading his clothes into a washing machine, and, judging by the tone of his voice, it’s unclear which activity is more of a chore.

But L.A.’s civilian population is not so blasé. One young woman gets in Todd’s face outside a local bar: “You’re like a gerbil,” she says, “A gerbil for reality TV.” Another heckler is less philosophical: “Hey, it’s that douche bag from the show.” Given such hatred, and the lack of respect even those of us who are addicted to reality TV tend to feel for its participants, I expected the voters to torture Todd far more than they have. Given a choice between making Todd don a gorilla suit and sing telegrams or act as Poison lead singer Bret Michaels’ assistant for a week (Todd’s preferred option), the audience chose Bret Michaels. Reality TV can be exploitative, disappointing, and cruel, but apparently its fans are still kind.