Some days it seems like television is eating itself. I don’t just mean all those recent series about the entertainment biz (Entourage, The Comeback, Fat Actress, and Unscripted) but also the spate of reality shows with wannabes auditioning to be TV stars.
MTV pioneered the format in 1998 with its “Wanna Be a VJ” contest. Things didn’t work out so well—the winner, Jesse Camp, was a gawky goofball whose erratic behavior caused the network to swiftly phase him out. For years, hardly anyone followed up on this attempt to use television as a recruitment device, apart from ESPN, with its annual Dream Job sportscaster competition. But then the success of a different kind of audition show (à la America’s Next Top Model and The Apprentice) inspired a rebirth of the genre. The recent CBS series Wickedly Perfect picked a lifestyle guru to appear on The Early Show, music network Fuse found a new VJ through Ultimate Fuse Gig, and the Food Network discovered The Next Food Network Star while demystifying the world of TV chefs. Putting a bunch of amateur cooks through weeks of on-air tests, the latter program focused not so much on quality of cuisine as on the contestants’ ability to read from a teleprompter while dicing vegetables. In almost Brechtian fashion, it exposed the mechanisms behind the sweatless spectacle of gastronomic competence: the staff of Food Network cooks and researchers who shop for the star chefs’ ingredients, break down recipes into scripts, and actually prepare the food that gets shown in those “here’s something I made earlier” shots.
Bravo’s new series Situation: Comedy proposes to do the same for the sitcom, guiding us through the compromises scriptwriters suffer to get pilots made. Will and Grace star Sean Hayes and his team hope to “save the sitcom” by choosing a few amateur scripts from among 10,000 submitted. After a glimpse of the creation process, the audience will vote on which show Bravo should broadcast. Although the finalists are celebrated as being “outside the system,” they don’t exactly come off as wayward mavericks; lord knows the idea of “Northern Exposure meets Golden Girls” doesn’t strike a massive blow for originality. The only faintly promising pitch comes from a duo who present their idea as “Who’s the Boss? meets funny”—a reminder that plenty of past hit sitcoms weren’t actually all that hilarious. Maybe that’s why the art form is dying: Our expectations have risen, while the networks keep serving us updated versions of Who’s the Boss?
The flashier counterparts to these TV recruitment programs are the post-American Idol shows like Rock Star: INXS (currently on CBS) and R U the Girl with T-Boz & Chilli (debuting on UPN later this month). Both are creepily premised on replacing a dead band member. Rock Star: INXS is like watching a talent contest every night (actually three nights a week for the next three months), except that it’s the same performers desecrating different hoary rock classics in every episode. Although the audience gets to vote competitors off, the real jury is INXS, who need to find a substitute for their late singer, Michael Hutchence. Since the Hutchence-less band lacks charisma, they’ve brought along their pal Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers, risking a serious soul-patch overload.
“The best way to preserve Michael’s legacy is to keep his music alive,” INXS guitarist Tim Farriss said on the first night of Rock Star, eyes darting with what I took to be a flicker of shame. Both CBS and INXS are gambling that a mass dosage of TV exposure will resurrect a band that was never exactly legendary in the first place. An Australian new wave band that went slick and funky just in time to catch the video wave, INXS scored a handful of big hits in the ’80s and ’90s. But they had faded into obscurity by the time Hutchence died under mysterious circumstances befitting a real rock star (either suicide or autoerotic asphyxiation), taking his mesmerizing sexual magnetism with him.
In his low-key way, Hutchence was a great singer and, despite debts to Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, an original. Which is more than can be said for the contestants on Rock Star. Skilled and big-voiced as they may be, almost all of them have cloned themselves on a specific predecessor. Deanna, for instance, reincarnates Janice Joplin as anodyne blonde belter on every song she performs, whether it’s Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” or the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” From the moment he walks onstage, everything about Ty screams Corey Glover of Living Colour; sure enough, the first song he performs is that band’s hit, “Cult of Personality.” A buff black singer with a cute mohawk, Ty is a natural showman who already seems certain to make the final three. But along with all the other contestants, he mistakes power for soul. Every song is flattened and coarsened by these bullying voices.
Like the melisma-addicted aspirants of American Idol, the singers of Rock Star have the mannerisms of rock ‘n’ roll performance down pat—the rasp, the raunch, the strut. Their repertoire of hackneyed gestures makes Rock Star akin to a TV version of the Jack Black movie The School of Rock—except that the humor is entirely accidental, coming from Navarro’s inane hyperbole (“He’s like modern, he’s like classic, he’s timeless!” he burbles about Ty) and from the contestants’ hopelessly uncool rendition of cool.