Ten or so (somewhat attractive) men and women in their early twenties, maybe with a token older contestant, endure a numbingly drawn-out series of trials and humiliations. These include hostile dissertation-committee meetings, labyrinthine statistical methodologies, and ramen. Some contestants are eliminated along the way — we watch their tearful exits with the comforting knowledge that by the end of the show, it is the survivors who will envy the escapees…. There will be romances and sexual liasons. Alliances, rivalries, sacrifices, even a betrayal or two — and we’ll see it all! In the end, the contestants who survive the early trials must compete with each other for the ultimate prize: a tenure-track assistant professorship at a pretty-good college in a not-bad city. To win, each preens and performs before panels of disdainful judges whose own talents are ambiguous but unchallenged. One winner is chosen — a contestant who is probably perfectly deserving, as would have been any of the others. And like being engaged to Alex Michel, the prize is actually an unspectacular one, to which everybody but the contestants is pretty ambivalent.
The winner also gets to participate in the equally cutthroat sequel, “Tenure Island.” Then after that, “Lots of Big Grants Island,” “Full Professor Island,” “More Prestigious Institution Island,” and “Avoiding Intellectual Stagnation Island.”
It’s good. But there’s just a little something missing, I think — the real squirm factor that only one of the sex-and-dating (in that order, I guess) shows can provide. My response, posted last night to IA’s comments: I’m kind of thinking of an academic version of “Fifth Wheel” — two recent PhDs and two search committees meet up for interviews and a drunken ride around town in a weird disco bus. After the first segment, the PhDs switch search committees; after the second segment, each candidate (and committee) confides in the audience about how they think it’s going. Then, in the third segment, the “fifth wheel” is introduced, an academic hottie of massive proportions. Will it be a recent Yale PhD with a Cambridge UP book contract, seeking to lure the attentions of both search committees? Or will it be a third search committee from a well-heeled Major U., seeking to poach the other committees’ candidates? And who goes home alone?