Just like Pan, we were the kids who were never supposed to grow up. So those of us who represent the tail end of the Baby Boom are staving off our inevitable midlife crisis the only ways we know how: by acting like horny prom dates, and by doing it on national television.

This week marks the climax of Age of Love (9 p.m. Monday, NBC), the show that has a bunch of 40-somethings who look like they're in their 30s competing against a bunch of 20-somethings who look like they're in their 30s for the love of a guy who actually is 30. I make no bets on the outcome, save that the winner will not be human decency. In accepting an ever-more-humiliating set of challenges designed to show them at their worst while feeding the ego of rock-stupid Aussie tennis player Mark Philippoussis, the ladies have contributed to what must be the cruelest program in the short history of the reality-dating genre. (Yes, I saw the one with the midgets.)

Throughout, Age of Love has been engineered to exploit audience sympathy for the "cougars" and fear of the "kittens," the latter of whom have made repeated nasty cracks about the allegedly menopausal condition of their rivals. But when called upon to defend their true worth, the older women haven't been able to come up with much, beyond the factoids that they make a lot of money and/or are smokin' hot (the cornerstones, remember, of any successful relationship). Amid the wholesale overuse of the accolade "beautiful," you get the impression that the show is really an exercise in self-congratulation for an increasingly insecure demographic. As Nietzsche noted, if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. And then it compliments your rack.

The program, however, is a week at the Sorbonne compared to Rock of Love (9 p.m. Sunday, VH1), in which a bevy of skanks vies for the attention of one gone-to-seed hair metalist. That would be Poison frontman Bret Michaels, who in his salad days compensated for his near-total lack of musical ability by crafting a public image as a gregarious fellow with killer abs. What's he like now? Still gregarious — though his skyrocketing chin count is apparently no turnoff to the show's cast of agreeably old-school ho-bags. "I'm gonna get me some rocker ass," contestant Brandi M. announced in the pilot, thereby identifying the series' target viewer as anyone who has ever found the keyboard riff to "Frankenstein" stuck in his or her head during coitus.

It would be nice to think that this saggy social experiment signifies a mutual acceptance of the growth process, but it's merely evidence that a surface orientation can weather lowered standards. (The younger contestants, one assumes, view it all as some sort of retro goof.) Michaels' "courtship" method seldom veers from the road-dog school of social interaction, in which it's considered the height of erudition to regale a captive audience with stories of the last time your band played Texas. So far, the closest thing to a mature connection that he's experienced has been with Rodeo, an ancient yet hard-bodied cowgirl who got him to open up about his lifelong struggle with diabetes by revealing that she had once been paralyzed for two years. OK, so it wasn't the Iraq Study Group, but it was still an impressive showing for a guy whose previous contribution to the art of conversation had been exhorting one of his bandmates to pick up that guitar and talk to him.

Finally, there's Scott Baio Is 45 … and Single (10:30 p.m. Sunday, VH1), a prime opportunity for the former Chachi Arcola to cure his fear of commitment. Speeding him on his quest is life coach Ali Arnold, who proclaims that he'll only get better if he takes eight weeks away from his would-be fiancee to apologize to all the girls he's wronged before (an itinerary I'm sure she devised without any input from the show's producers). Unlike the aforementioned Bret Michaels Is 44 … and Puffy, Baio's show finds its precedent not in the oeuvre of Flavor Flav but in the legitimate cinema: It's Broken Flowers, albeit with the added attraction of a living protagonist.

It's also surprisingly captivating viewing, better staged and more sober-minded than most reality fare. Baio makes a likably pathetic, almost tragic antihero; either he's at least marginally sincere, or his acting has improved immeasurably since the days when he owned no shirts with sleeves. In exchanging his trademark cry of wa-wa-wa for a world-weary wah wah wah, he comes across as a mournful, dark-humored soul trapped within the prison of his own hedonism — a kind of Dean Martin for his generation.

The question now is if that generation knows it needs a Dean Martin, or if it's too busy acting beautiful. Hey, abyss: You could use a tuck.

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June 23, 2021


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