Last Night's TV: Rock Rivals, ITV1<br/>Extraordinary People: The Fastest Man On No Legs, Five

You can't always get what you want
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The Independent Culture

The title sequence for Rock Rivals is almost indistinguishable from those of the elimination talent shows that it parodies – a driving rock theme accelerating to an explosive finish, showers of sparks and steely letters that clang together like a prison gate. The gap between the reality and the fiction is so small as to be negligible. What a pity they couldn't keep it up for more than 30 seconds. It needn't matter that a television show is implausible, of course. Shed Media, which produces Rock Rivals, also made Bad Girls and Footballers' Wives for ITV, neither of them famous for the unblinking sociological exactitude with which they depicted a women's prison or the world of Premier League football, but both of them delivering big audiences and giving ITV executives the closest they've come to a warm, cosy glow for years. The hope must be – and desperate craving would probably be a better term for it – that they can pull the trick off again with a behind-the-scenes drama about a kind of television that has proved to be a reliable ratings winner for ITV.

Michelle Collins plays Karina, a supportive Sharon Osbourne type of talent-show panellist who is married to Mal, a Simon Cowell-style character assassin. On screen, they spar over the qualities of their respective protégés and play up the rivalry for the sake of interesting cut-aways. Offscreen, they both have an interest in driving the ratings as high as possible. Until, that is, the appropriately named Jinx surreptitiously switches on Mal's radio mike while he is making love to her in his dressing room and broadcasts his infidelity to the entire production team, including Karina. He says, "It meant nothing." She says, "It's over, Mal, we're finished," and their synthetic feuding turns – with utterly implausible speed – into bitter enmity, a battle they will fight through their wannabe proxies, Luke and Bethany.

I wouldn't be staking my future on Bethany, to be honest, who despite getting through a viewer vote in the first episode caved in to a rather mild bit of disparagement from Mal (Simon Cowell can do worse on a day when he's feeling kind) and self-harmed while live on the ITV2 spin-off chat show. It was an odd kind of self-harming, though, because she appeared to draw blood on air, but by the time she got home all traces of the wound had disappeared, the first of several Acorn Antiques moments in the drama. If we are supposed to care about Bethany's emotional fragility, it might be a good idea for her despair to have real consequences, but even when she took a slug from a bottle of nail-polish remover, she survived, lying still only long enough to allow for a plangent counterpoint between her apparently dead body and the audition recording on which she'd sung, "Each day I live I want to be a day I give the best of me".

The cynicism of that sequence – the way it toyed with suicide and then dropped it so that the larger plot line would work – suggests that the makers of Rock Rivals don't have much respect for their audience. But one hopes that they don't think we're quite as sad as the one audience member who actually has a role in the drama, a fantasist called Felix, who has fallen in love with Luke, the talent show's heart-throb. We first encountered Felix eating spaghetti hoops as he watched Rock Rivals, and conducted a one-sided conversation with the companion who had an arm draped cosily round his neck. Then the camera pulled back to reveal a Guy Fawkes dummy with a photo of Luke's face taped to its head, evidence of Felix's stalker fixation, which will no doubt get more problematic as the series progresses. The fact that Felix is the most sympathetic character in the drama and that I found myself looking forward to his appearances either tells you more than you want to know about me or all you need to know about Rock Rivals.

I can't watch Five's Extraordinary People now without thinking of the pastiche trails from That Mitchell and Webb Look, which publicise upcoming programmes in the channel's "Point and Laugh But in a Caring Way Season". Last night's episode had much less of the carnival sideshow aspect than some, double amputees being a good deal more commonplace than two-headed women or prematurely ageing children. Then again, not many double amputees are fighting for the right to compete in the Olympic 400 metres as Oscar Pistorius is. Oscar runs on blades, curved shims of carbon fibre that are shaped like a cheetah's hind leg and, the athletics authorities fear, offer him a similar boost in speed. Sadly for Oscar, the tests carried out to establish whether they gave him an advantage came down against him competing with able-bodied athletes, a decision against which he's currently appealing. No laughing and no pointing here, just a portrait of an admirably complete competitor.

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