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TV review: ‘The Contestant’ peels curtain back on the worst reality show of all time

Neal Justin – Star Tribune (TNS)

Lists of the dumbest reality shows in TV history include the usual suspects: “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” “Flavor of Love,” “The Littlest Groom.” But those pieces of trash didn’t reek nearly as much as “Susunu! Denpa Shõnen.”

In 1998, the Japanese series started spitting out a weekly segment in which struggling actor Tomoaki “Nasubi” Hamatsu tried to live off prizes from magazine sweepstakes in a dank room, all without a stitch of clothes on. Hamatsu was unaware that his predicament was being broadcast to millions of viewers, laughing at him like he was the breakout star of a sitcom.

“The Contestant,” which starts streaming Thursday on Hulu, documents this stomach-churning moment in pop culture with a nonjudgmental lens, making the producers and rabid fans come across as even more sinister. Any shame the primary director may have is buried by the pride he takes in his camera shots.

Hamatsu, who comes across as a modest, likable patsy in fresh interviews, struggles to answer questions about why he agreed to play along, especially after executives tacked on an extra challenge in South Korea, extending his total “imprisonment” to 15 months. There are no easy explanations as to why he didn’t bust out. But then, it’s also hard to explain why so many of us are drawn to watching our fellow human beings suffer. “The Contestant” ends up indicting the puppet masters of reality TV — as well as all of us who gladly let them pull the strings.

Also this week

‘Shardlake’

Matthew Shardlake, a barrister loyal to Thomas Cromwell, isn’t as sharp as Sherlock Holmes, which means it takes him all of six episodes to figure out who committed a series of murders in a remote monastery. You’ll figure out the killer long before he does. But Shardlake (Arthur Hughes) makes up for his lack of smarts with a grittiness that would serve him well if he could pound whiskey with hot-head detective Mike Hammer. Screenwriter Stephen Butchard does an excellent job of weaving Tudor-era history into a second-rate detective story. Hulu 

‘Call Me Country: Beyoncé & Nashville’s Renaissance’

This documentary spends a good deal of time showing how Beyoncé Knowles became a legend. But you already know that. What may be new to you is how her recent country music album is far from an aberration. Black artists have been knocking on Nashville’s doors for decades without much response. The most revealing parts of this film is when veteran artists like Rhiannon Giddens and Rissi Palmer share their frustrations, wondering why it takes a superstar to get the kind of attention they’ve coveted for years. Max

‘Elsbeth’

This “Good Wife” spinoff is turning out to be one of the most delightful new network shows in years, thanks primarily to its willingness to be goofy. In this week’s episode, our bubbly investigator (Carrie Preston) tricks an uppity suspect (Keegan-Michael Key) into doing a chicken dance. Let’s see someone from the “NCIS” team pull that off. 10 p.m. ET Thursday, CBS

‘The Roast of Tom Brady’

For a while, celebrity roasts were reserved for has-been stars, willing to be the butt of jokes for one more moment in the spotlight. Not anymore. The most successful quarterback of all time will take the hits in this live bash. 8 p.m. Sunday, Netflix

©2024 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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