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Television Review

The dating game gets stranger and stranger

Antonio Sabato Jr. is the center of attention on VH1’s new dating show, “My Antonio.’’ Antonio Sabato Jr. is the center of attention on VH1’s new dating show, “My Antonio.’’ (Piotr Sikora/Vh1)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / August 15, 2009

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It is a bizarre conceit of TV dating shows - and a slate of new ones is here - that the participants must act as if this brief televised interlude is their one and only chance for love. As in, “Antonio is my shot at happiness, and it’s my time,’’ as one buxom woman says on the premiere of VH1’s new “My Antonio.’’

Well, good luck to you, then. Antonio is “General Hospital’’ star and erstwhile underwear model Antonio Sabato Jr., and VH1 has assembled 13 women to vie for his heart in the usual TV ways: flirting, canoodling, climbing up tall hills at his command. The contestants on “My Antonio,’’ which premieres tomorrow night at 10, are no strangers to the catfight or the wonders of breast enhancement. “We have flotation devices!’’ one of the ladies coos as Sabato takes off his shirt, dives off a boat, and swims to the Hawaiian shore where they stand waiting for him.

VH1 has built an empire on dating shows that refuse to take themselves seriously; “My Antonio’’ is produced by Michael Hirschorn, the former VH1 executive who brought us “Flavor of Love’’ and its many permutations. The broadcast networks, by contrast, seem more interested in dating shows as sociological pursuits. ABC’s gimmicky “Dating in the Dark,’’ which airs Mondays at 9 p.m., purports to solve the age-old mystery of whether looks matter. Fox’s “More to Love,’’ on Tuesdays at 9 p.m., aims to show the world that large women need romance, too.

Even “My Antonio’’ is a study, of sorts, in the lengths people will go to draw attention to themselves; this isn’t just a parody of dating shows, it’s a parody of love. The women heave their heavy chests. Sabato’s mother appears in a sinister floppy hat to grill contestants on their prospects. And before long, Sabato’s ex-wife has crashed the party, too, announcing she wants him back.

Sabato, meanwhile, can’t stop erupting into cheesy grins. You figure he’s in on the joke (he’s credited as a producer), but the show relies on the notion that he’s too far in love with himself to be anyone’s perfect catch. He’s the guy in the bar who likes to sidle up to groups of women and purr, “Hey, ladies.’’ And if he weren’t so good looking, he’d get Chardonnay - or maybe white Zinfandel - thrown in his face.

ABC’s “Dating in the Dark’’ wants to imagine a world where Sabato, heaven help him, would have to rely on his personality. Each week, the show sends three men and three women into a pitch-black room (“the dark room’’) where they meet, break into pairs, and get to know each other better. Infrared cameras capture ghostly, black-and-white versions of the players, fumbling around for chairs and clumsily touching each other’s faces as they try to gauge compatibility.

The dates are surprisingly dull - mostly, they talk about surfing and working out - but the moment each week when the players are unveiled is nicely orchestrated, and fascinating in its way. Two people face each other in the dark room; for each one, in turn, the infrared light goes out, followed by a moment of darkness. Then a spotlight comes on. The person bathed in light tends to giggle shyly. The one still in the dark breaks into either a giddy smile or a look of shock.

The show thus far is a cop-out, in that all of the participants are generally attractive. (The worst one woman had to say about her would-be beau is that he had the kind of look her mother would like.) If VH1 had put on “Dancing in the Dark,’’ it would have paired Sabato with an Ugly Betty type. And had “More to Love’’ been a VH1 production, we would have been treated to a hunky, Sabato-esque bachelor with a fetish for plus-size women.

Fox, instead, gives us Luke, a 26-year-old real estate investor who weighs in at more than 300 pounds, and who might have gotten the best deal of any reality bachelor in history. Not only does he get to be the object of desire, but he’s the white knight, allowed to say noble things like, “I think you’re all gorgeous on the outside.’’ Fortunately, he’s likable, largely because of the way he revels in his Casanova moment. “Girls, get your fine selves down here,’’ he hollered to the ladies in last week’s episode, and it sounded like something he’d been dying to say for years.

The women, for their part, are dutifully underconfident. There are more tears here than on your average dating show, and Fox - which has blessedly stopped the habit of displaying the women’s weights onscreen beside their names - has clearly encouraged them to drum up maximum pity. One by one, they tell stories about lack of dating experience, virginity, struggles with self-esteem. This past week, Luke took them to a makeshift prom, opening the door for extended reminiscences about dateless nights and crushed aspirations.

They are not, in this respect, a representative sample of plus-size women, and the stereotype of the heavyset wallflower is certain to irk a lot of people. On the other hand, there’s something nice about the way this show doesn’t purport to rescue these women or change them. Many of them look gorgeous - far more so than the unnaturally enhanced women who are vying for Sabato’s heart. And, like Sabato’s would-be princesses, they know how to play the part. On “My Antonio,’’ one woman declares that “I wanted to pour my champagne right into Antonio’s dimples and suck it out.’’ On “More to Love,’’ one bachelorette says of Luke, “I want to pour barbecue sauce all over him and eat him like a pork chop.’’ If only she were allowed to acknowledge how hilarious that is.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.boston.com/viewerdiscretion.

MY ANTONIO

On: VH1

Time: Premieres tomorrow at 10 p.m.

MORE TO LOVE

On: Channel 25

Time: Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

DATING IN THE DARK

On: Channel 5

Time: Mondays at 9 p.m.

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