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Reality Bites

No sooner did the ball drop in Times Square to signify the start of the New Year than the broadcast networks began dropping in reality shows as midseason replacements.

There were plenty of reasons for this sudden onslaught: leftover shows from previous reality-division regimes, a backlog of projects ordered as unscripted alternatives to the writers' strike, and the usual midseason bait-and-switch game, where inexpensive reality shows are launched to replace fall failures in the hope that something may stick.

The new crop of shows may not stick—but a lot of them do stink.

Not all of them, however. And even some of the bad ones have elements that are admittedly compelling at least in the way they mine the worst of human behavior for the sake of entertainment. But collectively, they're a mouthful that's awfully hard to swallow.

Fox has returned with the most popular unscripted show on television, American Idol, and won't offer any new reality shows this month, but NBC and ABC have three apiece, and CBS has one. Here's the rundown, and the verdict, on each:

The NBC dating show Momma's Boys, in which three self-professed “momma's boys” work their way through a pool of attentive beauties with guidance and resistance from their mothers, is awful. But because some of the mothers are so poorly behaved, there's a hypnotic train-wreck aspect to this show.

One mom disapproves of her son Michael's attraction to a blonde girl named Meghan because, as the mom explains it, “The way she dresses, it's very prerogative.” (At least she's not judging her on vocabulary.) Mom prefers and selects Erica, but doesn't yet know that Erica was last year's Penthouse Pet of the Year.

ABC's True Beauty features similarly bad behavior, but the production of this “inner beauty” pageant among beautiful people is more annoying than the contestants. One contest divided these beautiful people into teams of three so they could hit Melrose boutiques and buy clothes for the three of them for $100. The teams got stuff donated, allegedly on the basis of their looks and charm, but no one ever mentions the advantage of having TV cameras around for the ride. What a waste.

NBC's Howie Do It, a Candid Camera-type show with a bewigged Howie Mandel pulling pranks, at least hides its cameras. It is, however, barely watchable.

ABC's PrimeTime special series “What Would You Do?” hides behind the pretense of being a “social experiment,” but its pranks are no more noble or instructive than Mandel's goofy antics. John Quinones dresses up as a day laborer, then has an actor playing a convenience store employee refuse to serve him, accusing him of being an illegal immigrant. How will the other customers react? Oooh, fewer than 10% of people in this “experiment” exhibit racist behavior. Afterward, Howie—sorry, John—–reveals himself and asks customers to explain their behavior, good or bad. My, how instructive.

What could be worse? The answer is CBS's Game Show in My Head, in which Joe Rogan, that tasteful host of Fear Factor, barks orders to contestants via an earpiece, urging them to humiliate themselves publicly for $5,000 a pop. It's watchable only if you imagine Rogan doing the same thing—being ordered, in his own earpiece, to humiliate himself by hosting this puerile mess.

ABC's Homeland Security USA takes a slightly higher ground. It has the unfortunate pre-approved feel of a recruitment film, and the narration is a bit smarmy, but at least this show does present the lengths to which some people will go to smuggle goods, or themselves, over a border or past an airport screener.

Finally, there's NBC's Superstars of Dance. It's got some moments of interest and some flashes of talent, but if you're already stretched thin or bored by Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance and the rest, this show won't engage you.

What will? Lost, Dollhouse and other new or returning shows with actors, and scripts, and vision. They're just around the corner—Lost on Jan. 21, Dollhouse in a few weeks—and they can't get here soon enough.

Ben Grossman's Left Coast Bias column will return next week.