A "GREAT SOCIAL experiment" has commenced on Monday nights on NBC: a reality show called "Age of Love." The idea is to find a mate for Australian tennis star Mark Philippoussis, a 6-foot-5 former GQ cover boy who, according to the show, "has everything except someone to share his life with."
As on all reality dating shows, the remedy involves introducing the eligible party to a pool of candidates so uniform in their generic attractiveness that it's a bit like watching someone select a brand of shampoo. The catch here, however, is that Philippoussis, who's 30, is presented with seven women who are tan, toned, long-haired, big-bosomed and in their 40s! (OK, one is 39, but her career as a mortgage loan officer makes her seem more mature.)
That awful screeching sound you're about to hear? It's not the nails-on-a-chalkboard effect of reality television, it's the ensuing catfight between the "cougars" and the "kittens." That's what NBC decided to call these rival gangs, describing them on the "Age of Love" website as "beautiful and sophisticated" and "enthusiastic and fun," respectively. And although the two sides haven't yet seen each other, previews from upcoming episodes suggest that the level of competition will elicit some sparkling repartee.
"What's a synonym for old?" we hear one kitten ask.
"Decrepit," answers another.
"Age of Love" executive producer J.D. Roth, who's behind such shows as "The Biggest Loser" and "Beauty and the Geek," said last week in an interview on RealityWanted.net that he gets his best ideas from listening in on the women when he and his wife socialize with other couples. When the subject of older women dating younger men arose one night, and Roth suggested that such scenarios were beyond his female dinner companions' reach, he was duly scolded. Then he realized he had the kernel of a great idea. Or at least an idea that could make effective use of the tiki torches, evening wear and porno soundtrack-style music without which no reality dating show is complete.
But unlike "The Bachelor," which has a nearly identical structure but teaches nothing about human attraction that can't be gleaned by attending a high school prom, "Age of Love" comes with a pseudo-scientific veneer — not to mention a whiff of pseudo-feminism. By opening the show with the warning "The Experiment Begins Now," we're asked to believe at least two things: 1) that there's some really groundbreaking TV going on here, and 2) that all the scientific data suggesting that female sexual desirability is directly related to fertility are quite possibly a bunch of hooey.
In other words, we're supposed to be impressed by this show's progressive-mindedness. Most reality (or even nonreality) shows wouldn't even ask the question of whether a wealthy, 30-year-old hottie would choose a 40-ish cougar over a 20-ish kitten. "Age of Love" not only asks, it's going to make us squirm through eight weeks of the answer.
But judging from the first episode, what's really being showcased here are the latest advantages in cosmetic self-preservation. Make no mistake, these 40-something women do look spectacular. Though many have children (one as old as 25!), there's not an ounce of jiggling flesh visible among them and, what's more, many have retained the giggling, slumber party demeanor that will forever be associated with youth (after all, you don't make it onto reality TV if you can't making whooping noises and apply a mud mask at the same time).
Still, there's no getting around the fact that the cougars' particular brand of fabulousness is less about their accomplishments (one is a legal secretary, another is listed on the website simply as "freelance") than their willingness to override nature with science. As they present themselves to Philippoussis, coyly disclosing their ages as though they were lifting up their clothes to reveal prosthetic limbs, we watch him struggle to keep his composure by offering up wan little compliments like "you look incredible" and "you're very beautiful." The unspoken second half of that sentence is, of course, "for your age."
"Age of Love" masquerades as an empowerment vehicle for middle-age women, but it's really just an advertisement for the Restylane injections, liposuction and long shag haircuts that can be used to look not quite so middle-aged.
The message is not that older women are wiser or more interesting than their younger counterparts but that, with the right tools (and enough money), 40-year-olds can access that formulaic version of hotness seen in 22-year-old pole dancers everywhere. And why bother being interesting when you can look like that?