Fallen stars redefine cheesy TV
Tim Goodman SFGate.com
Thursday, January 9, 2003
THE SURREAL LIFE: Reality series. 9 p.m. Thursdays, WB.
For anyone, parent or otherwise, whose steadfast, hard-line rules suddenly and surprisingly become crumpled and irrelevant, this column is for you.
OK, so you know that rant the other day about reaching the nadir of reality programming with "The Surreal Life," a series that takes MTV's "Real World" idea, rips it off and then adds C-list celebrities as the cast? Yeah, that one.
Well, forget what we said. Come on kids, let's gather around the bastard machine for some really fun and cheesy viewing!
"The Surreal Life," premiering at 9 tonight on the WB, is exactly what ABC's dismally executed "Celebrity Mole" and a host of other shows could never be: that near miraculous, whimsically dreamed-of concoction where you take a tired format, infuse it with forgotten and disgraced television and music icons and hope against hope that the chemistry experiment blows up gloriously into something people sit at home and watch, slack-jawed and riveted.
Hey, guess what? "The Surreal Life" is so bad it's good. Really bad. And really good. Seven "celebrities" forced to share bedrooms in Glen Campbell's old $7 million mansion. Cameras everywhere. Phones miked. No privacy. Trite "Real World"-type encounters staged. On paper, a disaster. In execution -- deliciously, insanely weird.
Finally, a reality show that goes beyond mere rubbernecking. This thing is, well, surreal. You've got MC Hammer, former rap star millionaire turned bankrupt joke. Corey Feldman, former child star turned rehab stat. Emmanuel Lewis, from "Webster" to what-ever-happened-to case, just another short kid turned short adult. Vince Neil, former Motley Crue front man whose frame has expanded as rapidly as metal music has shrunk. Gabrielle Carteris, the unglamorous "Beverly Hills, 90210" cast member who fell into oblivion the quickest. Brande Roderick, the Playboy playmate turned "Baywatch" actress. And Jerri Manthey, self-described "bitch" from the second "Survivor."
It's a C-list. Maybe a D-list. But tossed together, all of them forthrightly telling the camera that they're doing this, essentially, for "image repair," as Feldman said. You've got to give them credit for being the butt of the joke. And yet, what comes from all of this, even in the first hour,
is some things that are genuinely touching, some things that are sublime and a whole lot of potential.
The nice twist is that the WB delivers a "Surreal Life" tabloid to the doorstep, which sometimes reveals the petty complaints the "cast members" confess to the camera in private. When the cast -- in one of the great pecking- order breakdowns in history -- turns against reality-show "celebrity" Jerri because "she's not part of our universe as we know it," you begin to see the potential in this series.
Here's Brande on Jerri: "I was really disappointed because I thought it was going to be Robin Givens."
Oh, Lord. How can you not watch?
Later, when the gang is sent grocery shopping with a limited budget, Brande shines again: "Is there tax? On food?"
And wait until you hear Emmanuel Lewis' unbearably annoying high-pitched laugh. He's roommates with MC Hammer. Here's five bucks that says that won't last very long.
Early stars of "The Surreal Life" look to be Feldman, who's recovering from a wild life and whose girlfriend is his emotional anchor -- despite the fact that the duo like to enjoy the odd threesome now and again. Hammer comes off as not only sane but immensely likable, and this series could resurrect his reputation. And Neil, a wonderfully straight shooter, reveals some emotional surprises that you wouldn't expect on a show like this.
At the end of the first hour, you want more. You shouldn't, it's embarrassing, but then again it's perfectly executed trash and certainly no more damaging than a "Dateline" episode. Feldman has a shocker at the end that will make you squeal with delight -- the cheese is about to get cheesier. And who knew Lewis wouldn't eat sushi off a nearly naked woman? Come on, little man, step up to the plate!
Oh, it's all good. And bad. For all of you who have felt conflicted, who have sent mixed messages, we have an understanding now. It's a surreal world, indeed. In this TV reality, do as we say, not as we do.