America's Next Top Model has never been a bastion of high-quality entertainment; there's always been a guilty pleasure aspect to watching the series, which pits a group of naive (and often aggressive) girls against one another as they live in a plush house (which never seems to have enough bedrooms) and compete for a Cover Girl cosmetics contract and an agency deal with Elite Model Management. And yet throughout the many cycles of this reality competition, host/executive producer Tyra Banks has managed to make the series a platform for her talk show host persona, one which embraces the differences in people (i.e., Heather) while also holding up some of the very same stereotypes she wants to shatter (telling a plus-size model that she's too thin). I do have to give her credit for being a shrewd producer and for celebrating diversity among the model wannabe population. This cycle of Top Model has made headlines because of its inclusion of the series' first transgender contestants, Isis, who appeared on-camera last season during a challenge in which the girls were tasked with posing with formerly homeless youth as one of their earlier photo shoots. I was surprised by how centered Isis is and how she doesn't make a huge issue of her pre-op status during the first round of competition this season. While the other girls aren't exactly supportive of her (save for a few open-minded competitors), Isis definitely rises to the occasion and turns in a stunning photograph even as the other girls are mocking her relentlessly during her shoot. It's moments like those that show how much good Top Model can do and proves that there is still a lot of vibrance to this format, even after eleven cycles. (Yes, eleven!) Sadly, however, it's the fact that one of the models (Nikeysha) actually flashes the judges and the setup of the requisite "boot camp" premiere episode that undermines whatever positive qualities the two-hour premiere of Top Model (which airs tomorrow night on the CW) may have had. I'm not sure which producer came up with the awful idea of giving their boot camp/mass elimination a futuristic, mad-scientist vibe, but it was truly terrifying to watch the cheesy special effects, wooden "acting," and OTT touches that followed. It was bad enough to have the screen crackle with "electricity," but the teleporting effect whenever--ahem--Alpha Jay, Beta Jay, and Tyrabot entered/left the set was laughably bad. I get the need to keep these things fresh and interesting, but this was a new low, even for Top Model and I couldn't help but feel that the entire first hour was jumping the shark a little. (I'm not sure why the vibe was all futuristic and much was made about the show moving forward... and then the group photo shoot is a hippy-inspired love-in. Curious.) As for the models, they are definitely a motley bunch. I'm already loving 21-year-old hostess/go-go dancer Sheena who brings a Kimora Lee Simmons vibe to the proceedings; she's tough but open-minded and one of the few girls who actually welcomes Isis' participation in the competition. She's one of the those people you think you'd normally hate but her very frankness, coupled with her joie de vivre, make her irresistible. I'm also intrigued by kickboxing 19-year-old student McKey, who is already making some enemies after she struggles to keep up with her training whilst also participating in the competition; I think she's a quirky maverick and am very curious to see how they make her over. And I really am rooting for Isis, even though I can't help but think that the producers are trying to make more of a statement by including her but aren't really willing to bestow the Top Model crown on her head in the end. Meanwhile, Heather has new competition in the awkward category in the form of 19-year-old French student Marjorie from Marseilles, whose hyper-animated body language, quixotic speech patterns, and general nervousness make Asperger's Syndrome sufferer Heather seem positively super-confident and connected by comparison. I think Marjorie's nerves will definitely get the better of her before long, as she can't seem to keep still long enough to even have a conversation with the judges without seeming like she's going to pass out from the strain. Clark already annoys the hell of me, but she's clearly being set up as this season's major villain. And 19-year-old Hannah, who hails from Fairbanks, Alaska, stuns me with her naivete and close-mindedness. Yes, she's been sheltered and grew up in a house without running water or heat but... have you not watched the series before, H? There's perhaps an element of going through the motions with all of this. Sure, Nigel Barker, Paulina Porizkova, and Jay Manuel still steal the show but Tyra is beginning to grate on my nerves with her showboating and the girls seem more and more amateurish as a whole. All in all, it's a rather shaky start to the eleventh cycle of Top Model and I can't help but think that the wrinkles are starting to show in this aging model's face. Cycle Eleven of America's Next Top Model launches tomorrow night at 8 pm ET/PT on the CW.
The android has left the building. Or the test kitchen, anyway. Top Chef 's robotic host Katie Lee Joel, the veritable "Uptown Girl" herself (pictured at left), will NOT be sticking around for a second course of Bravo's hit culinary competition. According to a well-placed insider, Joel will "not be returning" to the show. No reason for her departure was cited. Unfortunately, the perfect replacement for Joel, Top Chef judge and professional chef Tom Colicchio, will not be taking over as the reality series' host (damn!). Instead, the show's producers are currently scouring to find a replacement for Joel. Top Chef 's second season was announced by Bravo last month, but no return date has been set for the series' ten-episode sophomore season. Stay tuned as this story develops. UPDATE (6/27): Bravo has now confirmed the above story .