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Is the future of reality TV people baking cakes, watching TV?

Among the delights emanating from television tonight is Extreme Cheapskates (TLC, 9 p.m.), a show described by TLC as one that aims to "follow some of the most peculiar self-proclaimed frugalistas as they go to radical lengths, day by day, to save and preserve their money and possessions."

It's a perplexing show, this slice of reality TV or "factual TV" or whatever they're calling it these days. On the one hand you'd think it's a perfect show for these times. People want to live more simply and spend less. Either they have less money than they expected or they just want escape from ceaseless consumerism and the spending of money that comes with it.

Extreme Cheapskates doesn't actually deliver much practical information. Instead, it's a series of profiles of eccentrics and obsessives. On it you'll find a married couple who, under the husband's direction, take showers together to save on the water bill. "Strictly two minutes with no hanky-panky at all," the husband says. Then we are informed that this practice "slices a monthly water bill in half." The couple also share deodorant and he allows "one wipe each" with the cheap deodorant stick.

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There's a marriage that will last. You wonder how long it will be before the woman meets a chap who says, "If you were with me you could use all the deodorant you want and I wouldn't ban hanky-panky in the shower." You suspect such an offer would make the lady in question weak at the knees.

Me, I could do without the Extreme Cheapskate's profile of a woman who saves money by not using toilet paper and explains how she gets around this. Also, the advice on dumpster-diving seems a tad dubious. Mind you, the new season affords us an opportunity to ponder the future of reality/factual TV. Where's it all going and what are the trends?

We're at the tail end of the man-TV craze, I suspect. Ice truckers, hardy fishermen and fellas dragging logs out of a swamp. Also, apparently, we're at the end of the hillbilly craze and the number of shows glorifying American rednecks will diminish. Most reality/factual trends start somewhere else. U.S. networks and specialty channels copy a formula that's successful in another country and then, here in Canada, a rather lame Canadian twist is added for a local version.

In Britain there are interesting developments. A huge hit right now is BBC's The Great British Bake Off which seeks to find the best amateur baker in the U.K. There are countless competitive cooking shows but this one draws viewers because, apparently, it's "nice." Contestants help each other out and, since few people bake these days, there's an exotic quality to it. CBS aired a copycat version this past summer, The American Baking Competition. It was a ratings disaster, possibly because viewers found it lacked the spite and anger than can erupt on such shows as MasterChef. And rumours of, uh, hanky-panky, between judges Paul Hollywood (the star of the BBC version) and fellow judge Marcela Valladolid, didn't help. Some viewers were, it seems, uncomfortable with the libidinous undercurrents.

In Chile they've got Opposite Worlds, a format now being heavily copied in Europe. It's a sort-of variation on Big Brother: "Contestants living in a house together are divided by a glass wall – with one side offering a futuristic life of luxury and the other the 'past' – a life of hardship and adversary." Might work here or in the U.S. But, hereabouts, we'd call the show Getting Appointed to the Senate.

The most interesting new format remains in Britain, mind you. It's on Channel 4 and it's Gogglebox. It's dead simple – it films people as they watch and react to prime-time TV. And it is hilarious. Couples and families of all types are filmed watching television in their homes. You can have a family of five enjoying a documentary about the Queen and waving back at her as she waves on TV. Or a gay couple making acid remarks as they watch Antiques Roadshow. A firm favourite is elderly couple Leon and Joan. In one instance they're watching Strictly Come Dancing. "That Susanna Reid is always flashing her legs off," Leon mutters. "If I had legs like that I'd show them off," Joan snaps. "Oh, your legs are better than that," Leon says and smiles.

As one English review pointed out, "It's not much of a format, but it's currently one of the greatest ones on British TV." This is true. Somebody make a version here, please. Then we could watch other people watching Extreme Cheapskates and saying, "That's disgusting!" Which it is.

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Also airing tonight

Republic of Doyle (CBC, 9 p.m.) features the return of Victor Garber as novelist Garrison Steele. Apparently, he "pulls the Doyles into an unusual murder investigation that resembles one of his novels." Also, "Jake zeroes in on a new enemy. Leslie tries to come to terms with the sudden change in her life." I trust that in the case of Sergeant Leslie Bennett (Krystin Pellerin) that means she moves on from that dreadful pink blouse she's been wearing recently. Lord thundering jay, put the comely woman in something chic.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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