Hunks and Has-Beens

Reality TV—Pop Thrills at 'Human Amusement Parks'

At least after episode one, the women seem fooled. Words used to describe Marriott: hottie, yummy, rich. Several contestants compare him to Gaston from Beauty and the Beast or make reference to feeling like Cinderella. Not surprising, since the women are ferried to their castle in a horse-drawn coach and introduced to Marriott at a ball. But the creepiest thing is the way the show sets up these working women (doctors, bankers, marketers) to look like gold diggers and scheming hussies. Marriott the Deceiver, perversely, takes on the serene righteousness of a morality play hero as he searches for true love, albeit on false pretenses. His mantra is "I want to find a woman who likes me for me"—a statement that defies even the most demented logic, given that fraudulence is built into the structure of the show. How can anyone like you for you if you're pretending to be someone else?

Just as reality TV grants a bizarre sense of importance to life's more banal moments (watching The Real World's Puck pick his nose and then take a swipe at the peanut butter jar; hearing Sharon Osbourne cuss out the neighbors), it also has taken on the dubious mission of exhuming ropey celebrity has-beens and also-rans for public display. If you'd asked me back in the early days of VH1's Behind the Music (a pioneer in the career resuscitation movement), I would have cheered the concept. Give balding '70s teenybopster Leif Garrett his own series! Base a sitcom around the cheesy infighting of Styx!

Audaciously mediocre: Emmanuel Lewis and friends on The Surreal Life
photo: Annie Chia
Audaciously mediocre: Emmanuel Lewis and friends on The Surreal Life


Joe Millionaire
Mondays at 9 p.m.
on Fox

The Surreal Life
Thursdays at 9 p.m.
on the WB

Behind the Music spawned The Osbournes, but few celebrities have the weird anti-charisma of Ozzy and his brood. Just check out The Surreal Life, one of several ex-celeb shows clogging the airwaves this fall, with more to follow soon (an American version of the U.K. hit I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here; Second Chance Idol). The show's lineup is audaciously mediocre, from Gary Coleman clone Emmanuel Lewis to Gabrielle Carteris, the nerdy smart girl on Beverly Hills 90210. Slightly higher up the Hollywood food chain, there's pudged-out Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil and fallen rap superstar MC Hammer. Every scene in the first episode seems orchestrated to play on our disdain, providing us with a series of flimsy comic tableaux. Crammed into a minivan with $500 to spend on groceries, the faded luminaries are deposited at a suburban supermarket, where they run the gauntlet of sniggering fellow shoppers. The producers trigger the episode's one moment of drama by offering a sushi dinner for the housemates, served on a woman's naked body. Vince chows down enthusiastically, as do Gabrielle and the other women, but Hammer stalks off, outraged by the sexist exploitation. Former child actor Corey Feldman boycotts too—but only because he's a vegetarian.

The appeal of The Surreal Life is seriously one-dimensional. Deluded, the celebrities see this as the first rung on the climb back to fame's firmament. As Feldman says on his first day, "I'm all about image repair at this point." But the show is all about stripping them of whatever dignity they still have.

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