Trend Alert! Mike Fleiss, producer of the reality cheese-a-thons "The Bachelor," "Are You Hot?" and "High School Reunion," has done the last thing you might have expected from a shlockmeister like him: He has singlehandedly pioneered a new television genre. Don't say I didn't warn you when it turns out to be The Next Big Thing.
I am referring to "The Real Gilligan's Island," which premiered last Tuesday evening on TBS. You can stop laughing now. On the surface, I'll grant you, the concept for the hourlong show might appear less than visionary. Cretinous, even. Fleiss noticed the parallel between the plights of the permanently syndicated first mate, skipper, millionaire couple, farm girl, professor and movie star and those faced by contestants on "Survivor" -- not to mention its many broadcast knockoffs. The stranded crew and passengers of the S.S. Minnow, it occurred to him, were TV's original survivors. Wouldn't it be a hoot to recruit stand-ins, maroon them in a tropical location with huts and props modeled after those in the 1964-67 CBS series, and have the 21st-century castaways compete for a chance to be rescued?
And wouldn't it be twice the fun if two sets of castaways went head to head -- Gilligan vs. Gilligan, Skipper vs. Skipper, and so on? What's a reality show, after all, without teams, alliances and elaborate challenges?
So that's what Fleiss threw together and shot in a secret location in the Gulf of Mexico. At first glance, "The Real Gilligan's Island" is pretty standard, if occasionally entertaining, reality fare. You've got a beach. You've got a couple of teams scheming against and within one another. You've got contests and contestants losing their place in the lineup. You've got bikinis.
In this case, though, you've also got contestants selected by virtue of their similarity to corresponding characters on the classic sitcom. The professors are real professors. The millionaire couples really are millionaire couples. And the movie stars are... OK, the movie stars are a joke. On one team, Ginger is played by Rod Stewart's ex, Rachel Hunter. Amazingly, she's the more credible of the two Gingers despite the fact that her resume is limited almost exclusively to work as a model and a brief appearance in "Rock Star with Jennifer Aniston." Her nemesis, Ginger number two, is Nicole Eggert. In episode one, this legend of the silver screen proffered her credentials as follows: "'Charles in Charge,' 'Baywatch' and a ton of movies."
On the level of cookie-cutter reality television, the program works, more or less. It didn't hurt that one of the Skippers (Bob Fahey, 52) suffered a mild heart attack after the first challenge and had to be choppered off by a MediVac crew. Rescued in the first episode: Who would have expected such an irony from a Fleiss production?
It likewise doesn't hurt that one of the professors is gay and one of the millionaire wives is a homophobic, right-wing uberbitch. The two sent more sparks flying in 60 minutes than you'd get from a whole season of beach bonfires.
A sampling of first-episode quotes from Donna Beaven, 45, a woman next to whom Leona Helmsly would come off as saccharine: "I'm against gay people." "They've proven that, if you're gay or lesbian, there's something wrong with you." "I didn't want to be stranded on an island with a gay person." To be fair, she was venal with regard to the stricken Skipper, too. After Fahey returned from the hospital to bid everyone a brief farewell, Beaven commented to a teammate, "When you're competing, you hope one of your competitors breaks down."
So "The Real Gilligan's Island" has its share of psychosis, ego, treachery, manipulation and interpersonal conflict -- that messy emotional grab bag that substitutes for drama in reality television. What's surprising is that its creator has stumbled upon something more.
From a cultural perspective, what's truly interesting about the show is that it represents the first reconnect in the history of American media between traditional, scripted programming and reality TV. Until now, everything has been one or the other -- a sitcom, for example, or a challenge-based series like "Fear Factor" or "The Amazing Race." The evolutionary line has now looped back upon itself, and the result is a new mutant strain of television that carries the DNA of both.
Much, if not most, of the fun of watching "The Real Gilligan's Island" undeniably comes from superimposing the fake cast members over the originals. The audience constantly and involuntarily compares the new huts, the new Mary Anns, the new relationships between castaways to the old ones; the result is a viewing experience with an unprecedented dimension. It's not art, but it's smart.
And, if the show stays on the air long enough, I suspect its breakthrough will be recognized and replicated by other producers. Admit it: You'd check out a program that featured a bunch of regular folk dressed up like our old friends from "Star Trek" who compete to earn a place in the captain's chair on the Enterprise. Speaking of friends, what viewer wouldn't be curious to discover how much some group of average schmoes might look and act like Chandler, Joey, Rachel and the gang as they take part in a "Big Brother"-style competition? Imagine them all locked up together in a space modeled after one of the apartments immortalized on that show.
The possibilities are endless: An "Apprentice"-type series in which a celebrated lawyer plays judge while contestants argue cases as characters from "Perry Mason." How about a program like one of those PBS "Frontier House" deals, only all the real-life participants play characters from "The Andy Griffith Show" and live in a prefab Mayberry bugged with a million miniature microphones? Or maybe dueling duplicates of the cast from "Cheers," each hoping to be the last one ejected from the bar?
"The Addams Family." "Happy Days." "The Dick Van Dyke Show." "I Love Lucy." "M.A.S.H." "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." "Leave It to Beaver." Is there a classic show out there that couldn't be adapted to fit one of today's tried-and-true reality formats? If there is, I can't think of it. With today's relaxed standards, you could do a "Peyton Place" so sizzling it would make "Temptation Island" look like, well, "Gilligan's Island."
Which brings us back to Mike Fleiss' hare-brainchild. Millionaires, professors and skippers are disappearing fast -- the show airs twice a week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m. -- so you'll want to get your pop-culture butt in gear if you plan to get on board.
Hey, there are worse ways to spend an hour of prime time in the middle of the week. It's not every cable rip-off, after all, that can offer a peek at our past, our future and Rachel Hunter sudsing up in a bamboo shower all in the same 60 minutes.