Who Is That Girl on the Bar?

The women of The Ultimate Coyote Ugly Search.

When did “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” grab its status as the premier song for bar-top dancing in sloppier country-and-western-themed joints? Why? Are its fiddle breaks simply that rousing? Could the fact that Charlie Daniels speaks, rather than sings, the verses make it ideally suited for 3-a.m. slur-alongs? Does Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” stand a legitimate chance of usurping it? These are some of the questions raised by The Ultimate Coyote Ugly Search (Country Music Television, Fridays at 8 p.m.ET). This sprightly reality competition, which documents the quest for a superlative bar wench, is a welcome alternative for those who have lost their taste for American Idol’s bitter pith or grown weary of the hysterical teen-mag tenor of America’s Next Top Model.

Coyote Ugly, founded in 1993, began its ascent from East Village dive bar to national institution in 1997, when GQ published Elizabeth Gilbert’s fine memoir of her year as a member of its all-female drink-slinging crew. “If you had come into the Coyote Ugly Saloon when I was bartending and asked me for a martini,” Gilbert wrote, “I would have poured a shot of Jack Daniel’s, and I would have said, ‘That’s how we make martinis in this place, pal.’ If you had come into the Coyote Ugly Saloon when Caroline was bartending and asked her for a rusty nail, she might have climbed on top of the bar and poured the Jack Daniel’s down your throat for you.” The clientele apparently found such gestures endearing. In 2000, Jerry Bruckheimer adapted Gilbert’s story for the big screen. Though the film does not rank among Mr. Bruckheimer’s more sophisticated efforts, it did both burnish the Coyote Ugly legend—take the scene in which the heroine halts a sexual assault by standing on the bar and belting Blondie—and make a shady contribution to the literature of female empowerment, promoting a brand of third-wave feminism where the wave wets T-shirts.

Now, in real life, the original hole in the wall has expanded into a nationwide chain of faux holes in the wall. Hurricane Katrina knocked out its New Orleans outpost for a time, and this show captures an arduous cross-country trek to find a new bartender for its reopening. The main players on the management side are a choreographer named Jacqui and two “Coyote Mentors”—stern Chantal and twinkling Cyndi. Their boss is a hard-nosed woman named Liliana Lovell, who wears her bangs like armor and ought to be the subject of case studies at Wharton. Lil is a visionary who demands that her bartenders possess, among other qualities, “gravity”—an intuitive skill for drawing female patrons up onto the bar to dance alongside them so that men will pant and drool, thus becoming parched, thus buying more drinks. Thus far, the show’s aspiring Coyotes have been evaluated for such skills as singing, dancing, giving attitude, and making change. And while they make for a widely diverse group in terms of ethnicity, body type, and mathematical ability, they’re united by a fondness for low-rise jeans and a dream of a better life. The bar could be the ticket into showbiz.

I’m in earnest about their hopes, and so is everybody else. Rita, who made the cut at the Nashville audition and is my favorite, did not quite melt into sobs when saying, “I can’t think of anything else that I’d rather do in my life, and I don’t know what else I would do, and if I don’t get it, I don’t know what else I’m gonna do.” Last week, Laura, a 22-year-old from Kansas City, proclaimed, “Honestly? I saw this and I was like, ‘Oh, man. This is my calling?’ ” For her part, Lil wants the girls to become who they are: “Whether it’s singing or standing on a bar, just be real and be yourself.” Miraculously, despite the endless line of switching hipbones here, the show is not piggish and even successfully manages some family-values patter.Its gravity is meant to draw us all of us into its orbit.