America's Next Top Model is a reality show starring model Tyra Banks, who's on a quest to find that thing that's so expressly stated in the title that a synopsis is probably a wasted effort.
The first season chronicles the journey of ten young women, one of whom will take the fairly meaningless title of America's next top model. There's Adrianne, a tomboy from Chicago who speaks like she skipped a couple of tetanus shots and stepped barefoot on a bunch of rusty nails...Robin, a holy-rolling plus sized model whose plus-size is really unevenly distributed...loudmouthed lesbian Ebony, who's more than eager to remind you that she's of African ancestry if her name and appearance didn't tip you off...a lazy latina Giselle who's incessantly fishing for compliments...Maxim girl in the making Katie...Nicole, who's so forgettable that all I can remember about her is that her disinterested boyfriend is some famous BMX guy...Kesse, a Tyra clone who can gyrate like she's in a Nelly video but is deeply religious, really!...Elyse, who gets a paragraph pretty much to herself, so I won't describe her here...Shannon, a toothy, Midwestern slice of apple pie...and Tessa, who...smokes?
In order to stay in the running to become America's next top model (and receive a Revlon modeling contract, a management deal with Wilhelmina Models, and an appearance in Marie Claire magazine!), the girls naturally have to learn to become models. A pantsless J. Alexander shows them how to strut their stuff down the runway, and they get lessons in handling the press, acting, makeup, haute couture fashion, and how to best present oneself to clients. They're then tested on these skills in weekly challenges like a bikini shoot in the dead of winter, an impromptu TV spot, relying on public transportation to make all their go-sees, and posing with (and without) a slew of different things of greatly varying appeal.
The basic structure is close enough to every other competition-based reality show ever: you start with a bunch of eager contestants, spend a sizeable chunk of each episode chronicling their squabbles as they attempt to live together,
rake them through the coals with various challenges each episode, and continually thin the herd at the end of each episode until you have a winner. One difference with America's Next Top Model seems to be that the real winners are the ones who get exposure on the show and are cut; the most successful working models of the bunch are the ones who didn't get the nod from Tyra and the gang at the end of the season.
Then again, I don't know what it is that the judges are hoping to find in these contestants. "Too commercial" is a frequent criticism they lob out, which seems kind of bizarre considering that the show is produced by and stars Tyra Banks, someone who made her name posing in skimpy lingerie for Victoria's Secret. The cover of Sports Illustrated doesn't exactly typify high fashion. I mean, one of the prizes is a gig with Revlon, and an early episode where the judges rail into an overly commercial look revolves around a shoot for Stuff Magazine. Isn't 'commercial' what they want? The show seems to indicate that the ideal high fashion look and the ideal commercial look are pretty much mutually exclusive, yet the judging seems to indicate that they want it both ways.
Even though Tyra Banks has her name and likeness plastered across every square inch of this three disc box set, Elyse Sewell is the real star of the season.
Elyse is the voice of the show, and it's such a bright, well-spoken, viciously sarcastic voice that without it, I probably would've gotten bored halfway through the second episode and given up entirely. Most of the contestants seem to be banking any chance of future happiness on winning this competition, but Elyse says she's just doing the show because she can put off med school if she needs to, but she's only twenty once. No sob stories about growing up dirt poor or how she wants to be a model 'cause they get to go places and wear clothes and stuff! Her comments and voiceovers are like having a snarky Planet Socks recap built into the show. While the other girls are having screaming, inane conversations, Elyse will sit off in a corner with her headphones on or duck into the America's Next Top Model equivalent of the confessional and profanely rant about her housemates, which is the highlight of the second episode and probably the season as a whole. You can group everything entertaining about this season under one of two columns: (1) someone doing or saying something profoundly stupid, like Robin arriving in Paris and saying "I expected to see people on boats with the...violins" or, with quotes like "most of the tasks that we had to do do not rely at all on intelligence, and being smarter than the other girls doesn't give me any advantage", (2) Elyse. Eloquent, grounded, witty, and ridiculously cute, she's my favorite reality TV show personality ever.
Okay, maybe it's not all about Elyse. You might recognize Adrianne Curry from the most recent season of The Surreal Life, and if she doesn't look familiar, pretend there are some blurred-out tits and bells might start clanging. She photographs amazingly well and almost seems like an unrecognizably different person in front of the camera. There's also Ebony, who, y'know, is. She's an extremely loud lesbian prone to ranting endlessly about topics everyone else in the room forgot about fifteen minutes earlier (similar to my reviewing style!) and is prone to inadvertently greasing doorknobs after slathering on moisturizer. Ebony adds a little strife to the season when she's pitted against the Christian Cabal, three girls who band together in faux-Milan and pore over the Bible. The cabal gripes when Ebony talks about bringing her girlfriend over for a couple of hours, sharing their concerns about homosinuality with her. Sweetie, if you frown on homosexuality, you're trying to break into the wrong industry.
Since this season starts off with a smaller cast that, of course, quickly gets progressively smaller, it seems a lot more intimate, and it's really the interaction between these girls (no, not that kind of interaction) that makes the show worthwhile. It only gets better in that respect as the season goes on, especially when it turns into an "us vs. them" thing halfway through, and Adrianne and Shannon become a lot more personable and likeable in the later episodes.
America's Next Top Model wound up being one of UPN's biggest draws, and the show's success quickly went to its head. Egos overinflated, particularly Tyra's, whose self-adulation started to saturate each installment. The challenges became even less grounded in reality (the psychic guest star in season two probably should've been a hint), and an awful lot of the challenges seemed to center around acting. Tyra, I have The Disney Channel. I've flipped by Life Size. If you've been in a movie where you play a Barbie knockoff who comes to life and teaches valuable lessons to the daughter of the guy who played Kirk on Dear John, you're not in a position to criticize anyone's acting. The really funny part is that Tyra's apparently so bad at spouting off her own lines that if you listen halfway closely, you'll frequently hear a shift in the audio where Tyra recorded over herself in post-production.
This first season of America's Next Top Model seems a lot leaner than the rest since it doesn't have all the baggage and expectations of an established hit. Most of the judges that have been mainstays over the past few seasons aren't here. Jay Manuel has a more peripheral role, and I guess Nolé Marin had his pomeranian at the groomers this season. Janice Dickinson is present and accounted for, but here she just seems loud and opinionated (in a good, if kinda obnoxious, way), not bat-shit crazy the way she came off in later seasons. By the way, Janice was one of the world's first supermodels! If you happen to forget that, or what this cycle's prizes are, or if Tyra hands you a picture at the end of the episode and you're unsure if you're still in the running to becoming America's next top model, don't fret! She'll remind you again and again and again. Being able to fast-forward through that endlessly repetitive blather is probably one of the biggest selling points of watching the show on DVD, even if this season's probably the least painful in that respect. It's like having a Page Down key while reading one of my overlong reviews! There are only eight episodes (nine, if you count the pre-finalé recap), so the show doesn't overstay its welcome like the interminable seasons of The Real World.
This is a show that got pretentious enough to call its seasons "cycles". No, Tyra. It's a TV show, not menstruation.
Anyway, the first season is probably the best group of girls the show's assembled to date. Casting in later seasons seemed to largely focus on who would toss in some Nielsen-friendly drama or who had the most outlandishly spelled name (Lluvy, Yaya, Jennipher, Jenascia, and Yoanna are a few memorable ones). It's a good, not-contrived mix of personalities, not really ever getting as boring or unbearably annoying the way some of the later seasons would. I think the worst medical condition this cycle is a bout of food poisoning, a far cry from the Lupus and Biefigal Retinawhatever that Blindy McCantsee had to toss in some obligatory drama in seasons two and three. The judges' decisions mostly seem logical too. Sure, I don't always get why one of them might like or dislike a particular photo, but there aren't any "...the hell?" decisions that seem to come out of left field where someone who really ought to be ousted sticks around while one of the better contestants gets the boot.
So anyway, although I won't pretend that America's Next Top Model is some sort of phenomenal artistic achievement, it's a very entertaining show, moreso in this first season than any that have followed since. The mix of pretty girls, the weekly modeling challenges, and Real World-ish bickering is an okay formula, elevated by this season's particular assortment of contestants and the fact that there are so few episodes that it's over before it has a chance to get stale. This set's a little overpriced -- $30 or so for nine (really eight) episodes of a reality show with fairly lightweight extras is more than I'd really want to spend. Readers with a more casual interest might want to opt for a rental, and with less than seven hours of material, it's pretty easy to tear through in a weekend. I like this first season of America's Next Top Model enough to recommend buying it, but unless you're an ardent fan who can't stomach the wait, it might be worth holding off a bit to see if the sticker price eases down any or sticking with a rental.
Video: These nine episodes of America's Next Top Model are presented full-frame -- with some sporadic letterboxing for artistic effect, I guess -- the same way they aired on UPN a couple years back. My UPN affiliate has always looked pretty lackluster, and the show's typically seemed soft and kinda washed-out when watching it live. The DVD set looks a lot crisper (although the photography can be inconsistent due to the reality nature of the show, and Tyra isn't entirely opposed to being heavily filtered), and the fashion-driven theme of the show serves up some vividly saturated colors. Since America's Next Top Model was taped rather than filmed, there's no speckling or wear to point out, and no digital artifacting or authoring hiccups leapt out at me either. (Well, one episode had this odd white pulsing effect against the blue sheets behind the judges' panel, but that's being way too nitpicky.) Pretty typical for a reality show, I guess.
Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo audio is also an improvement over the original broadcasts. The music tossed around each episode, mostly consisting of loud quasi-rock and royalty-free dance numbers, definitely packs a bigger punch on DVD. Some situations lend themselves more to sterlingly recorded dialogue than others, but the participants are generally clearly discernable, and whenever they're not, subtitles pop up on-screen. Those burned-in subtitles are the only ones on the DVD...nothing in French, Spanish, or whatever, but if you don't speak English, you're probably not reading this review...although closed captions are offered.
Supplements: The extras consist of three short featurettes.
"Casting Call" (7:07) delves into the casting process -- how the producers got the word out, what they were looking for, and what made some of these contestants stand out. "Reliving the First Season" (6:41) isn't just a bland recap of what we've already seen like the title seems to indicate -- it talks about how the project came about and how these episodes are put together, as well as lobbing out a few comments about Tyra and the cast. Finally, "The Two Jays" is a three minute piece about Jay Manuel and J. Alexander, not really offering much more information than viewers could've gleaned by watching these episodes. The first two featurettes are decent enough, but this set needs some sort of a "where are they now?" featurette following up on the girls, a retrospective with the cast, or audio commentaries. What's offered here seems pretty lightweight.
America's Next Top Model is a three-disc set, with four episodes a piece on the first two discs and the finalé and extras on the third. Each disc is packaged in a slimline transparent case and includes a set of static 4x3 menus. The episodes are divided into several different chapters, but there's not a submenu rattling off those chapter stops or the usual "Play All" feature. Completists might be happy to hear that the "Next Time On..."s and "Previously On..."s are provided, though.
Conclusion: With a lot of reality shows, the first season usually seems like a trial run, offering up some sort of formula that's tweaked and gradually improved upon in later seasons. America's Next Top Model seemed to get it right, or as right as it's likely to get, in its initial outing. Even if you've tuned into parts of the third or fourth seasons and didn't really dig it, these early episodes have the best cast and do a better job showing at least some of what it takes to be a model. The DVD set seems just a little too pricey, especially considering that the extras are slimmer than most of the models on the show, but I'd still recommend it.
Additional Fawning: Elyse's posts to her LiveJournal are teeming with the same sorts of snarky observations that made the first season of America's Next Top Model so much fun to watch. The entries mostly focus on her modeling career overseas, but a few months ago, Elyse gave a pretty detailed write-up that partially pulled back the curtain on America's Next Top Model and is definitely worth taking the time to read.
Oh, and if you want to read the bios and see the portfolios of the contestants of this season of America's Next Top Model, UPN's website is still up, but it spoils the winner, so if you don't want to know the outcome, don't click.