Reality Bites

Reality Bites: Extreme Couponing All-Stars

​​​There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch all of them, one at a time.

The only thing I could tell you going into something called Extreme Couponing All-Stars is "couponing" isn't a word. I've got those annoying red underlines all over this entry and it drives the copy editor in me bananas. B A N A N A S.

Because the premise of this ongoing, uh, "feature" is that I have to watch something I've never seen before, I was pleased the fine folks at ECAS laid out the rules right off the bat:

Each couponer has 30 minutes to buy at least $500 worth of retail items. Whoever saves the most, wins. And everything purchased must be donated to charity.

I do hope they're allowed to mix it up a bit, because if they go by my local food drive version of charity, the poor are going to be receiving five bills' worth of pumpkin pie filling and sliced beets.

Carla, our first contestant, hails from North Dakota and earned her all-star status by securing $700 in goods for $50. Formidable. Detroit resident Faatima, on the other hand, paid $35 for $1,160 in goods. Faatima has to be considered the favorite, if we're going to apply sports metaphors to shopping.

Why not? We call golf a "sport."

More background: Carla uses her status as the "don" of the local "coupon mafia" (she owns her own newspaper distribution center) to seize the best coupons. Faatima and her husband Brian spend 30 hours a week getting her coupons together. Carla's husband wisely avoids the spotlight. I guess "the don" keeps him on a short leash.

Each show starts with "The Scout," where each contestant scopes out the pickings in his or her local supermarket. Personally, I'd have preferred they transfer both women to a neutral location. Marquess of Queensbury rules and all that. Each gets a helper (Faatima's is Brian, Carla's is her best friend Amanda), and that helps to introduce us to a few more guidelines: Each contestant must purchase at least 15 different items, and no one item can account for more than 50 percent of their order. Carla plans cart logistics with Amanda, while Faatima exhorts Brian to be more of a cheerleader ("Get it, 'tima!").

I understand the race-against-time aspect is important, but does everyone agree this would be a lot more entertaining if they were in the same store? It would increase the likelihood of trash talk and ratchet up the possibility of violence. And potential mayhem is what makes reality programming worth watching.

A few minutes into the competition, I realize we aren't going by actual grocery store rules (Kroger's not going to give you an "overage" on an item, for example). The contestants also appear to have store staff at their beck and call, which is unrealistic in most outlets. To put it mildly.

The actual contest is intense, I guess. Maybe "intense" is the wrong word. How about "adequate"? The women are capable enough couponers (*sigh*), and both finish up well within the allotted time and with much more than the $500 of goods required.

What tension there is really derives from problems at checkout (Carla's coupons don't scan, and Faatima's register won't process such a large order...this is some life and death stuff here). In the end, Faatima comes out on top (99.96 percent savings versus 97.4 for Carla). Meanwhile the poor are happy to load up on pancake mix and energy drinks.

At long last, here's a reality show you can watch with your grandmother. Extreme Couponing would slot in really well between reruns of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and The Waltons, providing trailblazing saving information between those pioneer American television products.

But jeez, without any real conflict or consequences (even Carla's purchases end up going to charity), what's the point of this show? Why couldn't TLC just post up a matching donation for all the merchandise the winner banks, thus humiliating the loser ever more?

Maybe I'm just not a nice person.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar