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Humiliation TV has a long and hallowed history—camera technology and the relatively cheap and immediate forum of television make perfect partners in crime. Pointing a camera at people while they make mistakes or are made fools of is fun and profitable, not least because audiences, themselves unwitnessed, can gloat at human folly from the safety of their living rooms.

In this post-post age, which finds marketing departments so bereft of insider references to cannibalize that they’ve taken to chewing their own legs off, even Whoops TV is onto itself. World’s Funniest!, Fox’s ultra-penny-pinching version of ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos, sustains the genre’s tone as a seething cauldron of audience contempt. But it forgoes the primitive, self-referential trappings of the Bob Saget era—space-age glass cubes on risers above the set, equipped with the eternal triumvirate of TV-coffee table-couch, in which actors represented families watching the show. World’s Funniest! keeps the set as lo-fi as possible and earns its meta-giggles with a weekly segment of fake spots in which the nice-try crowd gets its blatantly fabricated oopsies aired anyway, to the scorn of both the studio audience and the one at home.

The recent, Cops-spawned spate of cost-effective, caught-on-tape filler has received plenty of attention for appealing to people’s base instincts, although there are baser instincts than bored prurience. The violent stuff aside, there are some amazing lessons to be learned in many of the hidden-camera acts exposed by these shows. The Busted at Work! series (the form is fond of exclamation points) is unbelievable, a highly concentrated distillation of American labor frustration amid the inequities of the working world it would behoove 60 Minutes to explore, if Don Hewitt didn’t make such snobbish distinctions between his hidden camera and Fox’s.

The controversial Guinness Book of World Records Show doesn’t even pretend to traffic in shame—it unabashedly feeds the audience’s capacity for vicarious gross-outs, and to hell with the squeamish. If you need any more proof that the cult-vs.-mainstream divisions in our culture have been eradicated for good, consider the fact that so many Jim Rose Circus sideshow acts have found a way to parlay their extraordinary specialties into a prize of sorts and attract a national audience in the process. In my desultory viewing, I’ve seen the jigsaw-puzzle-tattooed Enigma, the Amazing Mr. Lifto with his distended nipple (and other) piercings, and the aptly named Torture King do their squirmy off-the-midway things for the sweatpants-and-fanny-pack crowd. It’s rather sweet, and even if Matt “the Tube” Crowley’s particular talent isn’t measurable by Guinness standards, it would be nice to see him get some exposure.

The parent to all these shows, Candid Camera, first aired in 1948, and like a regenerating hydra, it ravages our fair land again today, spending a great deal of cash and mindpower thinking up ways to bamboozle mankind. The new CC is far from the wallet-on-a-string amateur hour of 50 years ago—that’s the sort of stunt we used to pull as 10-year-olds, documented by a state-of-the-art Super 8. Now Candid Camera antics are as elaborate as any wire scam David Goodis ever envisioned, and much crueler in their agenda. Most of CC’s yuks involve the sexual hysteria evoked by inverted or unexpected gender roles—a pretty woman shaving her face in public, a husky man asking for help with his stockings.

True but counterintuitive: MTV’s short-lived Buzzkill was both kinder and more imaginative than Candid Camera, its obvious inspiration, testing more complex societal presumptions than pink for girls and blue for boys. They offered passers-by a few free swings at an old car with a mallet—until the car’s “owner” showed up: a little greed, a lot of hostility, some tweaked notions of proprietorship and trust. In one of the show’s funniest segments, the hosts inveigled beachgoers into participating in a runway show of postapocalyptic “fashions”—consisting of found objects like fuzzy toilet-lid covers—designed by a guy who looked suspiciously like Isaac Mizrahi.

MTV’s peer into the abyss just happened to be a good-natured one, but the fashion and beauty industries thrive on such fretful gullibility. They have a reputation for cattiness, elitism, and an ever-shifting set of insane diktats, closing the distance between teenagers sporting bathroom accessories for the headband guy from that movie and prisoners of couture who would jump off a cliff wearing a three-armed sweater made from wood shavings if Rei Kawakubo told them to. The difference is slight but crucial: The teens know that fashion isn’t clothing; the fashionistas don’t.

Much of the fashion on TV actually is clothing (although some of the “style” is fashion—sometimes “fashion” sounds too fashiony). The word “fashion” conjures up venerable couture houses, pink ateliers, and daunting attitude—just right for the smartie observer or guesting social climber who wants his Style TV richly scented with evocations even if he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the stuff.

E!’s Fashion Emergency isn’t Humiliation TV per se, but it combines two volatile ingredients—clothing and the flattering attentions (but objective eye) of the camera—making its efforts on behalf of the real-folks makeover subjects meretricious, since all its fashion nastiness is trotted out behind a fig leaf of generosity. The host, plus-size model Emme, introduces the victim, who has written in begging for a new look for a first date/big job/interview/new life in a hip city, with scenes of the sad “before” in her (usually her) natural habitat trying simultaneously to display the cheerful gumption and clothing cluelessness that earned her a place on the show. Back in the studio, Emme then trots out her brace of flying monkeys—a terrifying lacquered woman in an “expressive” hairdo and a shrill, diminutive man—and they harmonize like cats on a fence about the various horrors of the guest’s current look.

The towering woman and her jowly henchman are templates for a variety of interchangeable overstyled females and snippy, undersized men who clip, paint, and drape the guests. These experts aren’t culled from the highest ranks—Kevyn Aucoin will not be doing makeup for the North Carolina chubbette making her local TV debut—and their discomfort is palpable as they try to look both contemptuous and encouraging while wrestling some fashion-don’t into sleeveless Armani. In fashion morality, cruelty is honesty, and the snot biscuits fly: “Goodwill calling,” the henchman sings as he drops a blouse into the reject pile while weeding a college student’s closet; hillbilly music plays while the spunky chubbette tries on clothes from the big city. Often, during the denouement, one of the small men in smart spectacles recounts his participation with Ozymandiaslike satisfaction:

“We took this clueless little nobody

who looked like nothing…” Look on

my work, you bitches, and despair.

The show listlessly pretends to suspense, along the lines of “Did E!’s new look help Janey land the job of her dreams?” although it is never prepared to concede that life for the eager little nobodies was better before they were shoehorned into flattering draperies and trendy-anchorwoman haircuts. Fashion Emergency can’t be faulted for dressing its candidates for success, romantic or professional, when that’s what they’re after. But the show offers this sartorial boost with all the disdain of high fashion’s reputed elitism—the attitude that says you can’t be expected to know anything but will not be forgiven your ignorance—and then does up its Galateas in the same dreary, correct, classic-but-stylish retail lockstep.

Fashion shows, many of them on E! and E!’s new spinoff channel, Style, run the gamut from Milan’s latest to Hollywood-awards-ceremony roundups, with very little in between, beyond, or below. The couture news is purely informational, not to say recreational—no one shelling out $11,000 for a Galliano ball gown is getting her fashion updates from Joan Rivers—but the lower-level reporting is all squeezed from the same classy-conformist tube.

Fashion Emergency comes the closest to showing how real people dress, but its raison d’être is to, for God’s sake, make them stop dressing that way. The “befores” are diverse and delightful, from the North Carolina girl’s sassy, tomboyish overalls, which “have got to go!” Hall insists, to the Texas boy’s cowboy hat—Cruella and Grumpy ditch the Stetson in favor of the de rigeur porkpie that wins him entree to L.A.’s popular Derby Club. (An elitist’s conundrum: Isn’t there a reason clubs have door policies? If he couldn’t have gotten in on his own…)

Hints of sartorial regionalism are briskly jettisoned; by the end of the segment, everyone is speaking the same accentless, ear-pleasing fashion language. Diana Vreeland’s famous maxim in support of vulgarity, “Bad taste is better than no taste,” is still true, but in the rock-scissors-paper game of the well-modulated makeover, Fashion Emergency makes no taste look a lot more original than good taste.—Arion Berger