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It’s a safe bet that when reality TV impresario Mike Fleiss designed his latest trap for human lab rats, he didn’t consult the work of poet Robert Frost. If he had, he might have stumbled across Frost’s warning that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and abandoned his current project, “There Goes the Neighborhood.”
Instead, he’s constructed his new seven-episode CBS reality series around a suburban neighborhood in Kennesaw, Ga., outside of Atlanta, that he’s surrounded with a 20-foot-high wall, cutting off eight families competing for $250,000 from the outside world.
As a visual metaphor, that wall is genuinely creepy, especially when the producers turn off the electricity inside. One of the dads compares it to Alcatraz, though it looks more like the hastily assembled partition that the Israelis have erected to separate themselves from the Palestinians.
But inside this tract-home gulag, the drama doesn’t immediately come to a boil.
Teams composed of families just don’t fit easily into established reality TV templates. The usually compelling “Amazing Race” hit more than a few roadblocks when it sent family teams racing across America in 2005, and NBC’s current “Great American Road Trip” feels like an endless trip to nowhere.
In “Neighborhood,” with the eight families fielding a total of 33 members, there’s too many characters to keep track of, even if they are required to wear color-coded clothing. The show helps out, of course, by tagging each of the clans with convenient monikers. The boisterous DeGirolamo family, for example, are dubbed “The Loud Ones.”
And because kids are involved, the challenges have to be dumbed-down. In the premiere, families have to disentangle fire hoses to spray mud off one another’s T-shirts to reveal numbers that will open locked boxes.
The show does make a few laudable stabs at diversity. There’s a mixed-race family and a lesbian couple with two teenage boys who appear to fit easily into the mix. One of the next-door teens rather charmingly refers to “The Two Moms,” as they’re identified, as Miss Chris and Miss Renee, though one dad — head of the family that boasts about its high IQ — immediately targets them for eviction, claiming the alternative household exhibits “too much fragmentation.”
Matt Rogers, a former contestant on the third edition of “American Idol,” hosts as if he’s wandered in from a neighboring cul-de-sac to see what all the commotion is about, while the overall gameplay borrows from the “Big Brother” playbook. Challenges result in winning families, who then must nominate two other families for eviction before everyone votes and feelings get hurt. But there’s not enough time for the strategizing, scheming and emotional breakdowns that make the three-times-per-week “Big Brother” a guilty pleasure.
Plus, while it’s easy enough to laugh at the self-absorption of the D-list wannabes on “Brother” — mostly single and in their 20s — you have to wonder about some of these parents, even if the show piously insists they are spending “quality time” with their families. In the stolid ’50s, when Ralph Kramden or Lucy Ricardo embarked on some harebrained get-rich-quick scheme, they were made to look foolish. But what lessons are these parents — taking leaves of absence from work to chase after $250,000 — teaching their kids? That trying to get rich quick is the new American way.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 9 (CBS)
Production: Next Entertainment and Jay Bienstock Prods. in association with Warner Horizon Television
Executive producers: Mike Fleiss, Jay Bienstock
Host: Matt Rogers
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