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Egos in desperate need of a pick-me-up

Caramanica is a freelance writer.

Every week, “The Pick-Up Artist” begins with a group hug. The contestant who narrowly escaped elimination in the previous episode returns to the rest of the survivors and is fully embraced by them, in a combination of brotherhood and desperation.

There is much to loathe about “The Pick-Up Artist” (VH1, Sundays at 10 p.m.), from its astonishingly callous disregard for women to its sometimes laughable protagonists, but this moment is unfailingly genuine. There are nominal alliances and friendships between certain players, all socially awkward young men badly in need of a confidence boost and a personal shopper, but mainly each sees himself in the others. A victory for any one is, by extension, a victory for all.

From week to week on this show, you can watch these men being nourished, with transformations no less revelatory than those on “The Biggest Loser.” Their tour guide into the world of human interaction is Mystery, a well-known leader in the “seduction community” (their term, not mine), who plies the noble trade of instructing the hapless on how to be less so, particularly in regard to women. He speaks deliberately, is irritatingly sure of himself and dresses ridiculously (last week, he paired what appeared to be shiny vinyl pants with a furry top hat; tonight he sports goggles similar to those Snoopy wears when fighting the Red Baron). It should come as little shock that in his previous life, Mystery was a magician.

And here, magic -- shaking off the past and giving one’s personality a complete reboot -- is what Mystery sells. This season’s contestants, a predictable assortment of virgins, dweebs and eccentrics, badly need the help. They are given haircuts, piercings and the wardrobe of the average unbearable Hollywood nightclub denizen. Then they are brainwashed with a series of tricks on how to chat up women that are largely designed to destabilize and recalibrate the interaction so that the man remains in control. Each week, they are sent into the field, generally a club, to practice their game.

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Mystery says things like, “The contestant who kino-escalates” -- that’s “kino,” as in touch, and escalates, as in successfully -- “to a kiss, while preserving comfort in the target, will win the field test.” Sexy, right?

Mystery is accompanied by two wings, or assistants: the stoic and flamboyant Matador, who is the show’s secret star, and Tara, a young woman of great empathy and curvature. (Last season’s second male wing, the creepy J-Dog, is nowhere to be found.) Tara, who helped with some challenges in the first season, lends an imprimatur of female approval to the show, a necessary corrective that would be welcome if it weren’t so ridiculous.

Women, of course, are only objects here -- targets, marks, penny stocks to be acquired and dumped. When these men are sent out on field tests to demonstrate their acquired aptitude in all things pickup, there’s no discussion of the sort of woman they might be seeking or what, if the first encounter is a success, the second one might look like.

Only the right sex organs matter. In tonight’s episode, Matt attempts to get the phone number of a bikini model but fails. Moments later, Simeon succeeds at the same task. We never so much as get her name.

There is a crude elegance to this strategy: For someone who has, say, never kissed a woman before, depersonalizing might be a useful means to overcoming fear. But as a life strategy, it is repellent.

There is little pride in getting shot down, though, as many of these men invariably are. To see these transactions laid bare is demoralizing, for both parties.

Mystery’s playbook is changing a bit. One of the techniques that last year’s show emphasized was peacocking, or dressing flamboyantly in order to attract attention. Strangely, Alex, the first contestant eliminated this season, was also the most natural peacock, with his semi-trendy glasses and fake gold chain. Why Mystery made him trash the latter is never fully explained. Maybe he didn’t see any voyeuristic potential in it.

Some of this show’s most amusing moments come from watching Mystery’s reactions to watching his charges in the field via hidden camera. Sometimes he’s stern. Sometimes he’s incredulous. Sometimes he realizes a particular student is taking to the teachings perhaps a bit too easily.

“Wow, look at that,” he says, watching Brian approach a table full of models in tonight’s episode. “He has no fear,” echoes Matador.

They both snicker a bit: They’ve created a monster.

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calendar@latimes.com


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