It's a Newer, Boy-crazier (and Better?) America's Next Top Model!

America's Next Top Model S20E01: "Meet the Guys and Girls"

First of all, to answer your most burning question, yes. America's Next Top Model is still on the air. Somewhere someone—or perhaps even multiple people—still watch this thing. Second of all, after 19 cycles it should be more than clear by now that this franchise will never, not ever, produce a "top model." If anything, the winner of each cycle should be crowned America's Next Top America's Next Top Model Model because the best career these winners could hope for will be a slot on a future all-stars edition of this show (should there even be future seasons). 

Anyway, forget the fraudulent title and premise; all that matters is good TV and for a while there ANTM was pretty great... so long as you could suspend your disbelief long enough to enjoy its madness. Personally I grew tired of this franchise around Cycle 13, when its patterns and cliches began to grow unbearable—particularly the clownish judges, arbitrary eliminations, forced in-jokes, barrel-scraped contestants, silly stunt cycles (short girls! British Girls! Girls who attend college!), and of course the retirement of Rich Juzwiak's legendary ANTM recaps, which by the end seemed to be the primary safety net keeping this trashball from falling down an abyss of unwatchability. Further killing my interest in this franchise? Shows like Bravo's Make Me a Supermodel and Oxygen's The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency began besting ANTM in at least one crucial way: male models. Yes, this can be chalked up to personal preference, but good TV is good TV and it turned out that preening dudes were just as hilarious and riveting as their female counterparts. And, you know, fun to look at.

So now, in a major NO DOY move, Tyra Banks has finally unveiled a Cycle 20 in which eight women will compete against eight men for a single title. After this week's two-hour season premiere, the question isn't whether or not the new formula will work (it does), it's whether the introduction of men is a too little, too late situation. Can the new dynamic save a franchise which has seemed graveyard-bound for years now? The answer, so far, is yes. Despite STILL being rife with ludicrous cliches both self-aware and oblivious, ANTM's infusion of menfolk has created a brand-new show, one that is much, much more watchable than recent seasons. That diamond-studded decimal point in the season's logo isn't a mistake: Cycle 20 is ANTM's Version 2.0. Yes, the software's still buggy, but an upgrade is an upgrade and this one hopefully won't crash the system as quickly as the last one threatened to. #computermetaphors

So far the male model version of ANTM works for the same reason any long-in-the-tooth reality show works: casting. The men in this case follow ANTM tradition in that they aren't quite model-caliber (I think we can all agree that people with actual model potential probably avoid this franchise like the career-ender it is), but to make up for their lack of gorgeosity they at least seem to have well-defined personalities (for better or worse) that make them not only not interchangeable, but poised to butt heads in the most entertaining ways. There's the self-defined "strong Christian" bodybuilding virgin who must live alongside a proudly effeminate finger-snapper and a bearded lumberjack-type. But the gender-split also works out well for the female contestants, as fewer women means that each of the eight seem more singular in looks and personality. Best of all, ANTM's most consistently admirable quality—its unwavering dedication to diversity in a lamentably not diverse industry—seems more fully realized than ever, as the cast includes a multitude of ethnicities, body shapes, economic backgrounds, sexualities, and genders (Virgg, a female semi-finalist, is transgender). In short, an invigorated, almost celebratory tone has arrived along with the fellas, making this one of the most promising premieres in ANTM history.

So let's talk first impressions! Obviously we'll learn more about these people as the cycle progresses, but here's who stood out in the season premiere (per the editors' screen time allotments):

Phil, 24, Lanesboro, MA

At first glance, Phil's the most bearish of the guys, but it was hard to get a read on his exact personality. At first his artsy outfits and hipster beard made him seem sensitive and possibly even above this televised circus (his initial no-big-dealness at kissing Virgg definitely counted in his favor) but as the premiere went on he began to bro out more and more, nearly coming to blows with another model over a playful crotch-punch gone wrong. While it's unclear whether he'll be sympathetic or not, one thing is very certain: The life or death of that beard will most likely be a recurring plot point. Can't wait for the makeover episode! (Will PHIL be the one to break down sobbing?)

Jeremy, 19, Mission Viejo, CA

Heartbreakingly sincere but definitely not the sharpest contestant, Jeremy was a formerly obese child who suddenly got ripped and his mom entered him in ANTM. Out of all the men he probably has the most to learn when it comes to modeling, but also ladies: He clearly has a crush on 19-year-old divorcee Jourdan, but his "strong Christian" morals and attendant virginity contributed to his onscreen awkwardness.

Marvin, 20, 6'1, Bronx, NY

Almost the entirety of Marvin's sob story (and all ANTM contestants are legally required to have one) revolved around the fact that Marvin's Honduran immigrant father is a JANITOR for a living. Yup, that's what plagues Marvin. It's his deep dark secret. The issue of his father being a janitor had apparently haunted Marvin so much that during his obligatory, Tyra-encouraged tearful catharsis, he shouted proudly "My dad's a janitor!" So yeah. The humiliation he probably caused his father, coupled with his "joke" that wearing stage makeup in the Bronx would get him murdered, made Marvin come across like a bit of an asshole. 

Chris H., 25, North Bergen, NJ

While having the weirdest (and by definition, most model-esque) face, Chris H. seemed socially awkward from the get-go. From his weird unicorn hairstyle in the opening round to his inability to make friends (he mistakenly believed that running around punching dudes' crotches would be well-received), his unintentional misfit persona seemed most tragic. Particularly when he explained that he'd been raised by a desperately poor teen mom and had lived in a series of cars and hovels all his life. (Tyra goaded him into discussing this with the tasteful prompt, "We've had some interesting people who have not had homes and you are one of them.") Yep, Chris H. is the underdog-with-weird-beauty that this show loves to rally around, so I'm guessing he'll go pretty far.

Nina, 18, Berkeley Heights, NJ

As for the ladies, Nina made the strongest impression due to her huge eyes, penchant for hula-hooping, and possible lunacy. She's definitely a classic ANTM type: borderline weird-looking and awkward in confessionals but stunning in photo shoots. Plus if her soundbites continue to be this good (she explained that Tyra looks like an alien), it's hard to believe she won't go far.

Jourdan, 19, Bend, OR

Jourdan was the girl who got the most screen time, presumably due to her catchy, oft-repeated bio: "I was married at 18 and divorced at 18." While the extremely tall frontrunner first seemed interesting and slightly tragic, just like with Phil, her personality grew less appealing as the premiere wore on, particularly when she called out Jeremy's crush on her in front of everybody else. At this point her insistence on 100 percent fidelity to her boyfriend back home whiffs of overcompensation, so it's possible the show is setting her up for a cheatin' heart situation? 

Alexandra, 21, Palm City, FL

Another classic ANTM outspoken blonde type, Alexandra's main personality trait (aside from frequent, casual, and unconvincing boasts) is the way she openly discusses having been previously wealthy, losing everything, and is now using all her efforts to restore her family's fortune. Uh, it was not quite the most relatable sob story, but it was certainly memorable.

And although these people didn't make the main cast, they're worth pointing out:

Virgg was the aforementioned transgender contestant (and very proud of it!). She ended up withdrawing due to general physical unease related to her hormone-replacement therapy, but it's hard to imagine that someone as reasonable, sympathetic, and chill as Virgg would have been a right fit for this show. Still, it was a nice surprise having a transgender person included in the early rounds of a cycle based on gender differences, and she was treated really well by the guys, which was admittedly pretty heartwarming.

Finally, this stack of river stones named Delten (?) didn't end up making the final cut, which was a bummer since he looked like a lost Hemsworth brother or something. Oh well! He will just have to go back to being an Alaskan carpenter who looks like a male model. There are worse things to be, I suppose.

As for the rest of the episode's events, the format, challenges, and even story arcs were exactly what you'd expect if you've seen even a single cycle before. For instance, Tyra's wigs are still ludicrous and the judges (some of whom are new to me) are still carefully calibrated to never upstage her. The first photo shoot involved lingerie, was possibly inspired by Eyes Wide Shut, and included a co-ed runway makeout session notable mostly for how gross it made kissing look. Things DID get surprising when the two most effeminate male models opted to escort each other, but I have to assume from Tyra's approving laughter that it was her idea in the first place. 

The runway kisses were telling, though: This is a show that has traditionally feigned interest in fashion in order to film women getting into catfights, but now it basically wants to be Bachelor Pad. Which, fine! It's hard to imagine the addition of men would make the female contestants treat each other worse than they already did in previous seasons, so why not spice up all that interpersonal drama with crushes and broken hearts? If Cycle 2's infamous orgy with Italian male models is any indication, steamy times could be exactly what ANTM needs for a proper resurrection. Are all the models still too unremarkable-looking to be plausible as working models? Yeah, unfortunately. But are these human beings with interesting affects and the potential for compelling storytelling? I don't know how to tell you this, but it sort of looks that way! It may be early still, but first impressions are crucial, and in this case the 2.0 version of ANTM is a definite upgrade. Now bring on those makeovers.

What did YOU think of America's Next Top Model: Guys & Girls? Any early favorites? Least favorites?

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