Arts & Entertainment

'The Cougar' is on the prowl on TV Land

TelevisionEntertainmentReal Estate AgentsABC (tv network)Television IndustryDeathMark Philippoussis

You can tell how much Stacey Anderson likes you from the angle of her head.

During the elimination ceremonies on "The Cougar" (10 p.m. Wednesdays) -- the TV Land reality competition in which a gaggle of youngish men compete for the affections of Stacey, who is 40 -- aspiring hunters lean in for a kiss. Meet Stacey's lips, and you're good until the next round (though if she doesn't lean forward much or doesn't tilt her head for maximum contact, there might be cause for worry). Get the cheek, and don't let the indignity hit you on the way out.

Still, that's a lot of kisses, especially during this week's series premiere, in which 15 of 20 suitors survive elimination, only half of whom seem to have any sexual chemistry with their target. On ABC's " The Bachelor," which shares a creator and several structural conceits with this show, rose-ceremony kisses stay on the cheek pretty much the whole way through. Here, though, lips aren't sacred.

The presumption of sexual availability suffuses "The Cougar" more so than any reality dating show of its kind. "I'm in my prime, they're in their prime," Stacey explains to the show's host, Vivica A. Fox. "So not only is that connection outside the bedroom, but it's also inside the bedroom as well."

Flip the genders, and this might feel unreasonably, and uncomfortably predatory. But "The Cougar" gamely toes the line between breaking taboos on exploring the sexuality of older women and wantonly exploiting them.

As do the men, who are willing participants at the bottom end of the power dynamic.

"I really hope this cougar likes lamb, because I'm nice and sweet and tender," says Bodie, a 23-year-old pool boy with the face of a lost orphan.

"I like being the innocent guy and her just taking advantage," says Jimmy, a 23-year-old personal trainer wearing an exceedingly well-cut suit.

Travis, a surf-happy waiter who has just turned 21, shares "one of my first legal drinks" with Stacey, and then later asks her, "How about my first legal birthday kiss?" which she provides.

Perhaps she is oat-sowing. By the time Stacey was 21, the age of the youngest boy toy here, she'd already been married for five years. Now she is single again, the mother of four, and a commercial real estate broker in Scottsdale, Ariz., with a penchant for short dresses, tall heels and baby faces. In one advertisement, Stacey is wearing a blood-red outfit and holding a flaming heart-shaped hoop in front of a queue of baby-faced men, presumably unafraid of jumping through the fiery hole.

By contrast, little has been asked of the men competing for her, many of whom sport the gruesome sartorial combination of gelled, vertical-spiked hair and ill-fitting vertical-striped shirts. As if to emphasize their youth, the men are ferried to the opening-night event in a party bus, while Stacey arrives in a limousine. Some have jobs that demand responsibility; many don't. Asked what she prefers about younger men, Stacey replies, several times: "Their zest for life," as if they had lived some.

In 2007, tennis pro Mark Philippoussis participated in "Age of Love," a dating show in which he courted women both significantly younger and significantly older than him (he was not told of the conceit before filming began.) He chose a younger woman. This season on "Millionaire Matchmaker," on Bravo, Patti Stanger's first female client is, as it happens, a cougar, and a grumpy one at that.

Last week, the Fine Living Network began airing "How to Find a Husband," a British reality series in which Sally Gray, a 37-year-old TV host, spends 10 weeks trying out a range of methods -- Internet dating, blind dates, etc. -- to find a mate before late middle age creeps over and then past her. But none of the women on these shows appeared to have any agency, only blind hunger.

By contrast, Stacey appears willing to take advantage of her own typecasting, as seen in her interactions with Colt, a good-natured, slightly cocky 25-year-old musician who, in his introduction to Stacey, improvised a little ditty on guitar: "So you like guys under 30? That don't make you dirty. . . . " Later she asked him if he was teasing her for her tastes, as if she herself might be a little uncomfortable with the implications of cougardom.

But not really. At the end of the night, when Colt went in for the kiss, she leaned in too, meeting him more than halfway. The hunted was always the hunter, after all.

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