It's absurd what passes for 'Surreal' on the WB
By Chuck Barney
Knight Ridder News Service
HOLLYWOOD -- Veteran attendees of the television industry's twice-yearly press tours are highly accustomed to strange sights. That's why it doesn't seem all that weird to open the curtains of my 19th-floor room at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel and find Erik Estrada and Tammy Faye Messner staring back at me.
These two pop-cultural non sequiturs adorn a gigantic Highland Avenue billboard that celebrates "The Surreal Life," a bizarre and insanely goofy reality show from the WB that is stocked with celebrity has-beens and never-weres, including rapper Rob Van Winkle (aka Vanilla Ice), "Real World: Las Vegas" cast member Trishelle Canatella, porn star Ron Jeremy and former "Baywatch" babe Traci Bingham.
Ah, only on television.
"The Surreal Life," which premiered on Sunday, is in its second go-round, arriving on the heels of a predecessor that featured B-listers such as M.C. Hammer and Corey Feldman. It is a series that invites viewers to laugh with -- but mostly at -- these desperate retreads who are tossed together in a Hollywood mansion and forced to coexist like rats in a science project.
In explaining the casting process, producer Mark Cronin referred to a "worlds-in-collision" dynamic that particularly applies, in this case, to the presence of Tammy Faye, a former televangelist (and still a devout Christian), and Jeremy, who has appeared in 1,700 adult films.
Alas, Tammy Faye and her 20 pounds of facial makeup were no-shows when the Surreal Lifers appeared here at the press tour (something about a vocal-cord problem), but Jeremy graciously went out of his way to talk about how surprisingly well they got along while living under one roof.
"She has a very nice live-and-let-live attitude," he said. "She was an accepting evangelist, and that came as a big shock to me."
Apparently, viewers are very accepting of "The Surreal Life." Sunday night's premiere posted impressive ratings for the WB, even setting network records in a few demographic categories. It was a rare bit of good news for a network that has suffered an alarming drop-off this season in young viewers, an audience it typically owns.
"It's kind of like a sitcom, but we write the dialogue," said Jeremy in trying to explain why the show works. If only the WB's scripted sitcoms worked as well. On the contrary, its new comedies are lagging this season. For that matter, so are its new dramas.
And therein lies one of the brutal ironies of modern television: The WB spent millions of dollars this past fall building a marketing campaign around a lavish, high-concept remake of "Tarzan" and its super-hunky young star, ex-model Travis Fimmel. But despite an avalanche of advance buzz, that show landed with a ratings thud and was quickly canceled. On the other hand, "The Surreal Life," with its has-been personalities, kooky concept and low-budget approach, makes a big splash. Go figure.
Could it be that WB viewers would rather watch a pudgy, middle-aged porn star than a chiseled young hottie? It's not that simple, of course, but Canatella and Bingham certainly had their eyes on Jeremy. While shooting "The Surreal Life" they continually tried to sneak a peek at his, um, notorious appendage. Jeremy, though, was having none of it.
"Let's face the facts: If they want to see something, I think it's only fair that they flash something, too," he told reporters. Meanwhile, producer Cronin playfully admitted that Jeremy's body part has become "like an extra character in the show."
Such below-the-belt humor may prompt plenty of eye-rolling in some corners and generate talk of television once again wallowing in the muck. But the sad fact is, networks these days are falling back on these titillating reality franchises to make up for their scripted misfirings. On Fox, for example, Paris Hilton's loopy series, "The Simple Life," was a sizable hit, while Jerry Bruckheimer's big-budget drama, "Skin," tanked big time.
Even so, Jamie Kellner, the WB's soon-to-retire chairman and CEO, doesn't like where the industry is headed. "I'm not as big a fan of [reality TV] as a lot of the younger people," he says, insisting the genre tends to produce a lot of fleeting successes and thereby "trains" an audience to be more fickle while undermining the stability of a network schedule. Sounds like he's getting out of the biz at exactly the right time.
Still, Kellner, like most executives in network television, insists he's a "big believer in giving the audience what it wants to see."
Which means that, if things continue going as they are, we could be facing a "surreal" life sentence.