Early on in the new Peacock series “Ex-Rated,” host Andy Cohen does something somewhat unusual, for him: He gives a little bit of himself. Speaking to a guest who is currently pregnant as a surrogate parent, he says, “Surrogates are very special to me, and I think they’re just God’s children,” he says, adding that his own son was born via surrogate.
It’s a small moment, landing somewhat blandly — “Awesome! Love it, okay!,” his conversation partner says — but it still feels unusual. Sure, Cohen has a sort of relentless frankness on camera, but it tends to be directed outwards: On his talk show, “Watch What Happens Live,” and on reunions for “The Real Housewives,” he’s willing to help his interview subjects go anywhere, obtaining revelations he’s not shy about judging in the moment. But as chaos erupts around him, Cohen maintains a certain guardedness that can look like ceding the spotlight, or like refusing to play fair.
That’s, generally, as much the case in “Ex-Rated” as ever. The show, which Cohen also executive produces, brings in a guest to examine their romantic prospects, as judged by their exes. The guests present as not merely unlucky in love but juicily dysfunctional in ways Cohen can probe: A fellow who seems to have badly overestimated his sexual prowess relative to his former partners’ experience, a dominatrix who presents as a bit removed from conversations. The gap between people’s respective understandings of what worked and didn’t is the engine of the show.
This difference, brought to light, can be genuinely tough and a bit painful, and the show’s trappings tend to emphasize this without accounting for the real people involved. The show’s game-show-esque trappings — its gleaming deep-red set, Cohen nodding and urging the contestants along as they spill about misconceptions and disappointments, sex-position demonstrations intended to right the ways of a particularly inept lover — doesn’t match the gravity of what’s being said. “Ex-Rated” wants to be sprightly fun, but it dwells in an area that’s a bit darker.
This is usually where Cohen excels: As a commentator on the “Housewives,” he’s put an inquisitive, thoughtful attitude towards addiction, hatred and heartbreak, all while keeping the franchise more or less aloft. But the guests on “Ex-Rated” lack the charisma or flat-out weirdness of the “Real Housewives” cast members. There’s less to grab onto to make into entertainment. So what rushes in to fill the gap is an enforced confessionalism. We learn about guests’ sexual practice and methods in extreme detail, making “Ex-Rated” feel at times like a 2021 answer to the “Jenny Jones” era of 1990s daytime trash-TV. The contemporary gloss is that this is a “social experiment” meant to teach us better ways to communicate, but let’s get real: Is anyone watching to be edified?
Part of the show’s formula is a host who’s game for anything, and who’s willing to allow those who step in front of the camera to embarrass themselves. There’s a simple human-interest appeal to seeing, say, a fairly acrimonious argument between exes for whom wounds are still fresh, or a fellow to watch former partners describe his shortcomings in bed. This is watchable, and fans of Cohen will surely flock to Peacock to see him practice the same sort of eager badgering of personal details from folks willing to share.
But there’s a disposability here that rubs up uncomfortably with the reality of what’s being discussed, and that makes one wonder just how portable Cohen’s skillset really is. On “Housewives,” Cohen is prying information from women with whom the audience has built a years-long relationship; on “Watch What Happens,” he’s dealing with celebrities, Bravo-made and otherwise. But the power dynamic on “Ex-Rated” is skewed. The fun of watching a well-known figure wheedle stories from his guests fades as it starts to look less like teasing out than just plain teasing, with Cohen, at a remove, the only person onstage in on the joke. For now, Cohen — charismatic but seeming to hide in plain sight — seems to have taken his role as hands-off ringmaster as far as it can go.
“Ex-Rated” premieres on Peacock Thursday, Aug. 12.
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