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Maul in the Family

Can a reality TV show be too real for its own good? This rather harsh reality check came to mind repeatedly while watching the unintentionally downbeat March 20 episode of NBC’s critically underwhelming and underperforming (ratings-wise) boxing saga, The Contender.

This was the hour devoted to the match involving Najai Turpin, the 23-year-old Philadelphia hopeful who shot himself in a car outside his training gym on Valentine’s Day, long after filming had completed on the much-delayed series but three weeks before it actually premiered.

Although NBC had hyped the episode in promos as “a loving tribute to a fallen contender,” the show itself made no mention of Turpin’s fate until an epilogue featuring series star Sugar Ray Leonard told viewers of the death and disclosed that a trust fund had been established for Turpin’s adorable 2-year-old daughter, Anje, the only thing in the young man’s life that seemed to bring him much joy.

Still, the pre-publicity of Turpin’s tragedy made it impossible to sit through the episode without being aware of the shuddery poignancy of his on-camera confession that, “if I die today or tomorrow, [my family will] have nothing.” He spoke of the show as a way “to fight your way out of the ghetto.” In a sour irony, the camera later focused on a sign on the Contender set sporting the proverb “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Unfortunately, in the case of Najai Turpin, who lost in five rounds to the more book-smart Sergio Mora—earlier shown quoting Napoleon (!), Oscar Wilde (!!) and Nietzsche (!!!)—this didn’t appear to have been much of a growth experience.

But there’s really no way to know. In the episodes leading up to his match, Turpin was (like many of the show’s cast) next to invisible. As often happens in a reality show, if you don’t make noise, you don’t get noticed. And Turpin appears to have been unusually quiet.

Throughout his spotlight episode, he remained an enigmatic figure. One of his rivals on the opposing “West” team said no one wanted to fight him because no one really knew him. “He’s a nut,” said Mora, before learning he would face Turpin in the ring.

Among Turpin’s few sound bites was a line that has become a Contender cliché, however based in truth it might be: “My family needs this,” he said. “I’m here for a real reason.” The desperation in his tone was unmistakable—and, yes, real—as was the bewildered pain in his eyes after losing the fight and his chance for the ultimate $1 million purse.

The family-values thing is a mantra for everyone involved in this series. Boxers are constantly hugging their kids, mom or significant other in what seems to be a transparent effort to clean up boxing’s tarnished image, or just to give the show a larger context than being a series about guys who beat the hell out of each other. “I fight for my family as much as myself,” said contestant Jeff Fraza earlier in the episode, before he learned he had chicken pox and, to his dismay, was quickly sent packing.

The guy voted in to take Fraza’s place, world-ranked Peter Manfredo, had been defeated in the series opener while his 2-year-old daughter watched. Weeping in the shower after his loss, the humiliated and humbled Manfredo had acted as if his life were effectively over. Now he gets a second chance to prove himself. But by the time he does, will anyone tune in to notice?

The Contender is such a strange and unsatisfying show, even by reality TV’s weird standards. Half of each episode is like a male weepie, with contestants unveiling personal sob stories as if they were auditioning for the juggernaut competition on ABC, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Then in the final act, it turns from Rocky lite (with Sly Stallone as pumped-up cheerleader) to Raging Bull, with the players pounding each other in ferociously edited bouts that use sound and visual effects to slow down and accentuate each significant punch.

The first part is boring, the last part revolting, and it’s all coated in a sentimental goo that doesn’t quite disguise the raw need of these men to win. It’s for their families, remember? Yes, but it’s also for their personal macho pride.

I can’t fathom who the target audience of this show is meant to be. It’s not that The Contender is badly done as much as it is a bad idea. (NBC had good reason to be scared when Fox’s shameless ripoff, The Last Great Champ, instantly flopped last fall.) Better for Mark Burnett to stick to tribal councils and boardroom firings. In the ring, The Contender is anything but.

Unlike most reality-TV shows, which are guilty pleasures at best and voyeuristic train wrecks (like TV Land’s misbegotten Chasing Farrah) at worst, The Contender is not an escapist experience. The stakes feel too high. The game is more than a game. It’s life and, literally, death.

But as a reality contest, it’s a real downer.