Reality Bitesize: The TV catch-up

From bushtucker-phobia to the rational fear of Simon Cowell, four series are hitting their peaks. Harriet Walker takes an aerial view
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The X Factor

The story so far...

A bumper year this time round with the inclusion of "wild cards" (roughly translated that's the people who the public really liked but who the judges thought were too fat). With the live shows lasting two-and-a-half hours and 14 finalists to purge ourselves of, Saturday nights began to feel like one never-ending filibuster.

Still, The X Factor grinds on like Orwell's boot stamping on a human face and we love it. The faces, of course, are those of the contestants with actual talent who are sacrificed to the gods of Good TV and – in a totalitarian system operated by Simon Cowell from under his desk – voted out ahead of the nymphomaniac, the novelty act and the adolescent wet rags.

Mired in controversy ever since judge Cheryl Cole collapsed with malaria, this season has seen dispu-ted decisions, extraditions, allegations of cheating, vocal public hatred, death threats and an Elton John special.

Heroes/villains

Where to start? Gamu Nhengu was the popular choice dropped by Cheryl Cole in favour of suburban egomaniacs Cher Lloyd and Katie Waissel, while Wagner is the tuneless Brazilian PE teacher who used to own a pet lion. Aiden Grimshaw was all jerky and bum-tingly but lost out to Waissel, whose new gamine crop and publicity-friendly gran (she's a £250-a-night escort) saw her through her fourth time in the bottom two.

Paije was adorable but Simon had it in for him and Louis couldn't distinguish him from Lenny Henry, and the nation has succumbed to an entirely immoral crush on a gaggle of teenage boys. It's the jackboots and cowl-neck jumpers that do it.

What happens next...

Quickly – as in, before people start eating each other – long-haired lothario Wagner (to be pronounced with a 'w' despite his repeated pleas to Louis Walsh's leaden ear for funny foreign names) and the monstrous Katie Waissel need to go. With the combined popularity of Anne Boleyn, Camilla Parker-Bowles and O'Brian from Downton Abbey, Waissel is rumoured to have been bought out of a previous record deal in the States by Cowell and has been spotted as a backing dancer in last year's competition. She's also one of the most unpleasant people on the planet. Cutesy giggle, mentions charity work, fiddles with artfully ripped tights.

The Apprentice

The story so far...

Lord Sugar's job hunt is the TV equivalent of the children's game The Farmer Wants a Wife, except that we don't all get to pat everyone's favourite Labour peer at the end of it. This series has been somewhat bereft of the characters and witticisms of previous offerings (nothing yet to rival Sugar's Stradivarius/bongos simile of last year, nor the revelation that he used to be trainee bugler in the Jewish Lads' Brigade) but Sugar continues to preside and crow over his crop of obsequious lumps like an angry teddy bear who has watched too much Blackadder. And that's enjoyable enough.

The contestants have so far made their own adverts and their own sausages, both of which were mainly padded out with sawdust; they've managed and marketed fashion boutiques ("Stella, stand in the window and beckon them in") and they've induced one of Planet Earth's most heart-rending spectacles: Nick's exasperated face, the one where his eyes roll back in his head and his mouth looks like an upside-down U.

Heroes/villains

It's a rather uninspiring herd this year – with no one quite odious or inept enough, there are always plenty of pretenders to Ruth Badger's throne. Manchester's most successful glove puppet, Alex Epstein, whose on-screen soubriquet was "Unemployed Head of Communications", provided some light relief with his bombastic yammerings and claim that he had originally conceived the idea of the bendy bus.

Removing all the other bores leaves us with Stuart "The Brand" Baggs – whose flair for litotes has raised him to practically a demigod in my eyes – and Liz Locke, who is just really fit. And the closest to normal that anyone on The Apprentice has come.

What happens next...

Predicting the outcome of The Apprentice is like watching US election results roll in – there are some special swing states that make all the difference. One of these is my favourite episode, which airs on Wednesday, broadly known as The One Where They Have to Flog a Load of Old Crap As Quickly As Possible.

Strictly Come Dancing

The story so far...

A rag-tag collection of people (let's not say celebs) come together to practise their quickstep. It's heav-enly viewing, thanks to the "are they, aren't they" factor and it's enjoyable in the same way as watching newsreaders humiliate themselves for charity. The interesting thing about Strictly, as the fans know it, is that those taking part do actually have to make an effort – much more so than sitting around in the jungle, enduring a faceful of rat every now and then.

Felicity Kendal and Patsy Kensit provide the glamour, while Ann Widdecombe and Paul Daniels are equally odious. Daniels exited soon after the season's start, while Kara Tointon (no, I've never heard of her either) and rugby player Gavin Henson bring a touch of the Dorian Grays to the floor.

One of the nice touches about the programme is the dizzying awfulness of the live band, who have murdered just about every tune going, from Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You" to "The Girl From Ipanema". The judges resemble stuffed voodoo dolls covered in make-up, their unruly limbs manhandled into cheap tuxedos and propped up by Bruce Forsyth's chin. "Overwhelmingly awful," was Craig Revel-Horwood's verdict on one of Widdecombe's performances and this quote stands for the programme in its entirety.

Heroes/villains

It was OK to fall a bit in love with John Sergeant, who was Strictly's ageing underdog in 2008. But the 2010 contest has engendered a battle of wills on almost every liberal sofa in the land: is it ever OK to feel affection for Ann Widdecombe?

Here's one way of rationalising it. It's OK to feel sorry for her when her yellow pants are accidentally flashed to all and sundry by an exuberant leg lift. It's OK to worry about her falling over and being flung about like a sheep ready for shearing. It's OK to feel the whole venture is rather demeaning. It's not OK to start thinking of her as a national treasure. You wouldn't want to hug Stalin if he was wearing maribou trim, would you? Then buck up.

What happens next...

Gavin Henson is injured in a freak fall while trying to dance and look in the mirror at the same time, and no one can catch him because all that baby oil on his chest has rendered him as slippery as a bar of soap in the shower. Ann Widdecombe is booked as a cuddly mascot for the royal wedding.

I'm a celebrity

The story so far...

Pondering what may or may not count as "celebrity" these days is about as useful as having holistic nutritionist and nature-phobe Gillian McKeith on your team for a competitive jungle-based game in which nobodies battle it out to win the heart, minds and flea-like attention spans of the British public. Nevertheless, it seems we're compelled to follow the antics of hunky Nigel Havers (who cracked and stormed out of the camp earlier this week), spunky Stacey Solomon and ex-junkie Shaun Ryder, whose finest moment was undoubtedly having a fag and pocketing his lighter before falling asleep while the others struggled to make sparks from soggy cotton wool.

Recently joined by Su Pollard (actually, it's Jenny Eclair but Linford Christie can't tell the difference) and The Independent's own Dom Joly, the apathetic jungle-dwellers continue to co-exist in a wobbly state of near permanent anxiety, friction and gorgeousness. (Thanks Britt Ekland for injecting some much-needed chic.)

But Joly be praised – he cajoled McKeith throughout one of her many bushtucker trials (thanks to her stunning displays of psychopathic pyrotechnics she was regularly chosen by the public to face whatever grim horrors Ant and Dec had up their tiny, cheeky sleeves) and, with a winning combination of wit and contempt, he somehow persuaded her to pick up four out of a possible five stars for the camp. Who would have thought that the man with the huge phone could also have had so huge a heart?

And in a dose of reality TV metatheatre, ex-Big Brother contestant Alison Hammond (who?) has also arrived in their midst, revealing she is planning to use her time in the jungle to lose a stone. She should take some tips from a dietician – what a shame there isn't a qualified one in the camp.

Top prize also to the genius behind the scenes who came up with the pun-tastic bushtucker trial "Who wants to eat a willy on-air?"

Heroes/villains

Pity the other down-on-their-luck personalities whose finite time in the proverbial sun is being eclipsed by the poky-faced Gillian McKeith. As well as pulling a fainting fit when buried alive in a coffin full of rats and then claiming she was pregnant, the 51-year-old apparently also smuggled in stock cubes and herbs in her M&S control pants – all the better to season the kangaroo penises, no doubt. What's astonishing is that a woman who pokes around in other people's faeces for a living could be so disgusted by a few parasites and old rats. And by all the insects, of course.

What happens next...

Will Stacey Solomon's winsome face fall off to reveal the metallic core of a calculating robot? Nobody this naïve is doing it by accident; behind the bikini, the teeth and the enthusiasm of a pre-school child, she's pure Moriarty.

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