Frank "T.J." Mackey has nothing on Mystery, and not just in the self-anointed nickname department. The scheming womanizer brought to life by Tom Cruise in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia was a self-deluding huckster who sold his method of scoring with women to hordes of lonely men eager to believe in the promise of store-bought salvation, as if a sizable check and copious notes were enough to somehow give them the interpersonal skills with the opposite sex they'd so far failed to display. But Mystery, the center of VH1's reality show The Pickup Artist and the subject of Neil Strauss' book The Game, is doing the same thing for real men, and I had no idea how depressing that concept could be until I saw the students eagerly lapping up Mystery's words of dubious wisdom on TV. All the trappings of reality TV are there—dramatic music, quick cuts, sound effects, and tons of B-roll—but underneath is a sad undercurrent of fear, desperation, and the terrible sight of men who have spent a lifetime dealing with rejection and are forced to take it one more time. That's the worst part about the show: Mystery tells men to be themselves but only insofar as that means becoming like him, and those who don't conform once again find themselves lost and alone.

The Pickup Artist begins with eight self-described losers being shuttled to a mansion in Austin, where they will be educated in the ways of picking up women by Mystery and his two wingmen, who call themselves—I shit you not—Matador and J-Dog. The show offers the slickly comfortable brand of reality TV that has become the norm: Scenes of the men arriving at the house are intercut with confessional room segments where they address the camera or the unseen interviewer about what's going on. But the program takes a somewhat more mocking tone toward its contestants and content than do most other reality shows. For instance, whenever the men appear as talking heads in one of the brief interstitials, a chyron appears with their name and a short descriptor, such as, "Starts strong but fades fast," or "Lives in parents' basement." But some of those eventually morph into "Adores musical theater" or "Puts himself on a pedestal." It's clear from the show's cavalier handling of its subjects as abstract concepts and not real people that these men aren't participants in some kind of lifestyle-changing experiment, but caricatures that can be easily sold for queasy entertainment at the expense of their own dignity. What's more, it mirrors Mystery's overall approach of viewing women not as, you know, a collection of free-thinking individuals, but as a hive-like collective that exists merely as a problem to be solved.

The show consists of weekly field challenges, in which the men are sent out to a nightclub and given the chance to practice the fake speeches and forced pickup lines they've been taught by Mystery, Matador, and J-Dog. Mystery, it should be pointed out, dresses like an absolute tool, decked out in a long coat and skull cap with goggles resting on his forehead, or else in a large feathered hat that looks like something Chris Robinson reluctantly wore for a Black Crowes photo shoot. That's part of the shtick he preaches to the men: Be flamboyant (read: reckless) with your outfits to attract attention. I thought things couldn't get worse than the first episode, which saw the men cast into the club and left to go it on whatever game they'd built up so far: They crashed and burned so often when talking to women that I found myself muting the TV or taking advantage of my DVR to skip forward a few seconds to avoid being further exposed to such raw emotional failure. But it turns out that first week was the most honest failure the contestants would face, since the second episode saw them get makeovers and wardrobe upgrades, as well as learn more tips and tricks for picking up women from Mystery and his crew. Instead of enhancing their own personalities, the men slowly began to transform into low-level Mystery clones, right down to outlandish outfits sanctioned by Mystery and pre-fabricated stories written by Mystery.

That's actually why the first contestant was eliminated: The unfortunately named Stephen Poon, who chose to go by the only slightly less embarrassing nickname Spoon, voluntarily left the show after the first challenge because he simply couldn't take the pressure of making a radical personality change so quickly. He was terrible at talking to women in the club, and his initial rejection was enough to make him realize that the Mystery method was not for him. Armed with new duds and a barrage of phony pickup lines, Spoon seized up in a panic attack moments after entering the club, and not even Matador's pep talk could help him out. So he quit the show. He told the camera he could probably get better at human interaction in the future, only he would do it "slowly, and in my own way." It's probably just as well Spoon headed back to his hometown of Portland; such individuality doesn't really make him a Mystery man.~

The men are judged weekly on how they "perform" in the challenges—they are tasked with remembering their fictional anecdotes, or getting a girl's number, or whatever—and that's the root of the show's weird truth: Everything these guys are doing is to impress each other. They want to look good for the opposite sex, but the main competition is to see which of them can do better than their friends, can look cooler, sound smarter, get with more women. If The Pickup Artist were really about changing your lifestyle to become a better, truer version of yourself, then no one would be kicked off, and everyone would spend eight weeks (or whatever) learning about social interaction and how to make friends without being creepy. But by structuring the series as an elimination game, Mystery tips his hand. This isn't about being a better man, but beating the better man, through a combination of head-fakes and psych-outs that may wind up helping these guys get laid but still threaten to leave them just as empty. But to see the way they look at Mystery, you know they don't care. As Mystery himself said, "You can speak about absolutely nothing, but as long as you speak with enthusiasm, your audience will feel that, too." Even Frank Mackey would be proud.

Episodes of

The Pickup Artist

air throughout the week on VH1.