WB’s Superstar USA

I am far more entertained by WB’s “Superstar USA” than I thought I would be. I was expecting bad singing — the highlight of each new “American Idol” season — but I wasn’t expecting such comedy from the judges.

Some background on the show, if you haven’t heard of it, or if you (wisely) boycott The WB on general principle. It is part of the post-“Joe Millionaire” world of reality TV in which unsuspecting people are lied to and tricked. Everything is set up to be WB’s answer to “American Idol,” complete with a trio of judges (with the same gender and racial demographics as “AI”), a cappella auditions, and the gradual whittling down of contestants to a final winner.

The difference is that what the judges are ACTUALLY doing is sending the good singers home and promoting the bad ones, paying them false compliments and lying to them throughout. Eventually, the worst singer in the bunch will be named the winner — at which point the hoax will be revealed, and someone who thought they’d just been named best singer in America will be told that no, in fact, they’re actually the worst. All our compliments have been lies. JOKE’S ON YOU, STUPID!!!

I believe this is the cruelest reality show so far. “The Littlest Groom” may have been more exploitative, but at least those tiny people knew what they were getting into. “The Swan” may be worse for women’s self-esteem, but again, at least they did it of their own accord.

It’s cruel because these kids’ only crime is the combo of being bad singers and thinking they’re good. Such an offense deserves being told by Simon Cowell to give it up, and if they get especially arrogant about it, then they need to be cut down to size (as do all people who are arrogant about anything). But such an elaborate prank, just to tell them they suck? There’s no justifying it. It’s mean. And when the final moment comes and the hoax is revealed, I’m pretty sure it will be painful to watch, maybe even unbearable.

But in the meantime, it sure is funny. The judges are Tone Loc (he of “Funky Cold Medina”), Vitamin C (an actress and former lead singer of Eve’s Plum who had a couple solo hits a few years ago) and Chris Briggs, the Simon Cowell figure who is one of the show’s producers. Their job is to watch the dreadful auditions with straight faces — Tone Loc’s ever-present sunglasses may be an aid in not making eye contact — and then offer false compliments as sincerely as possible.

Here is where I begin to be amused, and surprised. Loc doesn’t say much, but Vitamin and Briggs are masters of the backhanded compliment, the earnest-sounding sarcasm and the outright lie. Vitamin told one contestant, “I love how you refer to yourself in the third person,” when of course she meant, “I hate that you refer to yourself in the third person.” Contestants are told, “You made that song your own!” and “You have your own unique style!” And of course sometimes the judges just blatantly lie to them, but even then often with a healthy dose of absurd humor, as when Briggs said, “Hello, 911? I’d like to report a robbery: Frank has just stolen the show,” or when he told a contestant, “You put the ‘uperstar’ in ‘superstar.'” Simply telling the bad singers they’re good would have set up the prank well enough; adding some actual comedy to the proceedings makes the show a hoot in the process.

The show’s philosophy really came to be established in the third episode, when the judges selected the final 12 from the 28 worst auditions. While looking at Polaroids of the contestants, this exchange occurred:

VITAMIN: Is she arrogant?
BRIGGS: Check.
VITAMIN: Can she not sing?
BRIGGS: Check.

See, arrogance is a key factor. They want people who genuinely, outrageously, obnoxiously THINK they’ve got the stuff, and they want to slap them into reality. William Hung wouldn’t quite fit: He thought he could sing, but he didn’t get belligerent when the judges told him he couldn’t. (Of course, “American Idol” took that joke way too far — even further than “Superstar USA,” because “AI” never told Hung the joke was on him — but that’s another matter.)

The final 12 are indeed a motley collection of untalented, arrogant freaks. Several of them are ridiculously, flamboyantly gay — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but as with all extreme demeanors, it makes them hard to watch. (They make Jack on “Will & Grace” look like John Wayne.) There’s a creepily androgynous Hawaiian boy named Ross, two or three African-American and Hispanic divas-in-training (including one who calls herself Nina Diva yet who cannot sing a note), a Ruben Studdard-esque fellow who inexplicably said he wants to emulate Clay Aiken in his wardrobe choices, and a William Hung-ish Latino boy named Mario who said, “I am hip. I feel hip. But now I want to look hip,” and who actually seemed to believe it.

It is Mario I will probably feel most sorry for, because he’s in his own little world. With a freakishly thin frame, unfashionable eyeglasses, a face that can politely be described as unhandsome, and not an ounce of singing or dancing ability, he is the furthest thing from “hip.” Yet there he was, saying with quiet, personality-free meekness that he IS hip. Why would he believe that? What ever happened in his life to make him think that? He seems sweet, and not very arrogant; he will be one of the show’s true casualties.

The show also suffers a bit in that it seems overly pleased with its concept, the Seacrest-ish host Brian McFadyen telling us approximately 20,000 times per episode that “the GOOD singers get sent HOME, while the BAD singers PROGRESS!!!!!” (Yeah, yeah, we get it.) And the scenes of the judges rejecting the good singers, with insults and scorn, were truly hard to watch. After one of them, Briggs even said, of his own behavior, “Wow, that was mean.” Fortunately, they haven’t shown us too many of those.

But then again, there are the hilarious assessments from the judges. Of Frank, a pencil-thin, uber-gay Britney Spears wannabe, Vitamin said, “There were times when his singing was so odd, it made me not notice his dancing. And then there were times when his dancing was so strange, I couldn’t even hear him singing.” Their frank, astute observations — made out of the hearing of the contestants, of course — are the backbone of the show.

This is a series born in the Age of Irony, when “so bad it’s good” is viewed as legitimate praise. They’re setting out to give us entertainment in seeing people perform badly, and then to also tell us that, by the way, these people are so bad that we never should have been entertained by them. Fine with me if the show wants to have it both ways.