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Guilty pleasures and sleeper hits

Brides, scholars, cooks and has-beens populate summer’s reality shows.  Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Andy Dehnart each pick two recent favorites.
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Summer is a different time for reality shows. It can be hard to get into a groove of watching one show on a regular basis. Instead I find myself dipping in and out of different shows, checking out the kind of show I might normally never tune into.

This week, we share the reality shows we think should be the sleeper hits of the summer, as well as our own guilty-pleasure summer shows. We'll return to your questions next week.

Gael says: My sleeper hit is which I didn't discover until just a couple of weeks ago, and which has its finale Monday night. I admit, when I first heard this show's premise — super-smart kids compete for college scholarships — I about yawned myself to sleep. I envisioned an entire show of kids filling in standardized tests with number-two pencils.

Granted, "The Scholar" is a slower-paced show than, say, "Fear Factor," but after one episode, I was hooked. Part of what hooked me was the kids themselves. With 4.99 grade-point averages and 8 zillion extra-curriculars, they're used to working hard and succeeding. Unlike, say the drunken losers who now popular "The Real World," these young people are actually inspiring. And as befitting the kids' class, their tasks don't involve eating live octopus or bungee jumping, instead they make a student film based on a Shakespeare quote, or take a test about presidents, vice-presidents and the Constitution.

I also admit to a slight crush on bushy-eyebrowed Davis, the cockiest of the bunch. He wants to be president of the United States someday, and after watching him on "The Scholar," I wouldn't want to get in his way. (Still, there was some classic reality-show drama when he bungled a question about presidents who'd been assassinated -- he mistook "twentieth century" for "nineteenth century," and just couldn't figure out where he'd gone wrong.)

Brides go berserk!My guilty pleasure show is a world away from the classy industriousness of "The Scholar;" it's . In case you can't tell from the Web site animation of a bride ending up in a strait jacket (because mental illness is hilarious!), you should see the opening credits, which include the bride attacking an ice sculpture with a chain saw and a theme song that rhymes "Bridezilla" with "can't talk to her, can't kill her."

The first season of "Bridezillas" offered only super-expensive weddings, where viewers could spend half the episode mentally listing the things that could have been bought with the cash dropped on the wedding. (A car. A small house. A trip around the world...) This season has downsized a little, but it's still embarrassing to watch. There's the bride who calls the cops because her mom's rental car has a flat tire. A teen bride who dated her groom all of three times before getting engaged. Almost all of the brides swear like sailors. There's no demure Grace Kelly or Princess Diana here, and that makes for TV that's so bad it's great.

Andy says: My sleeper hit is "Hell's Kitchen," a FOX reality show set in a restaurant that's only peripherally about food or managing an eatery. It features a host/star, Gordon Ramsey, whose idea of wit is to call a fat man a "fat f---," and whose idea of discipline is to scream and throw food onto his chefs' aprons. The cast is rather uncharismatic, and the most interesting people keep leaving. And the "diners" in the restaurant — who rarely get fed — practically grab the cameras and point them at themselves. Yet it's absolutely addictive.

Perhaps all of the above explains why "Hell's Kitchen" didn't debut to rave reviews or ratings. But it's built a following over time, and the series consistently delivers compelling television. The apprentice chefs are hardly able to deliver outstanding food and efficient service, and that's what makes the show fun. They're incompetent, and they get screamed at. There isn't much depth here, but it's entertaining.

Why do the cast members continue to tolerate the abuse? (One actually quit.) How does Ramsey expect them to do well with basically no training? Why do the diners actually expect to eat and not throw up, as one risotto-consuming diner did a few weeks ago?

Those questions keep us tuning in, as do challenges like the one where the chefs had to make pasta and then hang it to dry on a fellow team member. Completely stupid, great summer television.

My guilty pleasure, "The Surreal Life," has been a must-see since its first season, when Corey Feldman tried to resuscitate his career but ended up looking like a bigger moron than we ever thought he was. This season, producers have assembled a cast that has a few heavy-hitters, like Jose Canseco. Throw him into a house with  personalities such as Omarosa from "The Apprentice" (she started grilling him about steroids right away), and there's plenty of drama.

The big surprise is that Balki from "Perfect Strangers" — also known as Bronson Pinchot — is incredibly witty and dirty. His one-liners should land him his own series. Plus, he managed to freak out the first supermodel/skeleton Janice Dickinson by hugging her on the first night, after they'd both been drinking. She threatened to quit; he kept following her around the house, dodging the three-legged dog, Lucky, that also inhabits their space. Awesome.

But what really makes "The Surreal Life" a guilty pleasure is that the producers know this is all a big joke, and they're on our side. During her meltdown, Janice Dickinson picked up the phone and called a friend. An on-screen graphic told us that it was her friend "Palo" on the phone. Hysterically and subtly, the graphic changed every time Janice changed her friend's name, because she apparently couldn't remember it.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is's Television Editor. is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.