overthinking the idiot box

June 27, 2005

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

Too Much Information
Celebreality: Neither Celebs Nor Reality

by Joel Bergen

I thought Reality was all about doing away with pesky (and costly) things like writers and stars. So why is it that an increasing number of Reality shows are featuring "celebrities" both past and present? This isn't good for Reality, it isn't good for celebrities, and most tragically, it isn't good for us.

Before The Osbournes invaded our collective consciousness in 2002, Reality was purely the haven of "average" people on television (well, a couple of stars slipped through on Project Greenlight, but they weren't the focus of that show). It was where we could turn to see people who weren't rich (yet), didn't have personal trainers and were, to some extent, in touch with...well, reality. Seeing regular folks as characters on a weekly series was a major part of the format's initial appeal.

Then the Ozz Man cameth, introducing the novel concept that pre-existing stars could be just as "normal" as all the other Average Joes populating the Reality landscape (just with bigger houses and personal assistants), and suddenly every pseudo-celebrity and their designer had their own Reality show. The first to cash in was Anna Nicole Smith, and for me, that's when Celebreality (as VH1 calls it now that it's taken over the network) jumped the shark.

Sure the ratings have still been there in the three years since, but I haven't. Actually, that's not entirely true. I should break Celebreality down into two categories: There's the v³rité-style (not that it's any more "real") where cameras follow the "celebrities" around as they go about their daily lives (The Osbournes, The Anna Nicole Show, Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica) and then there's the staged situation shows that mirror most other "regular" Reality series (The Surreal Life, The Simple Life, Celebrity Mole). It's the former that I can't get into.1

Sure, I've enjoyed the occasional episode of Newlyweds and was briefly obsessed with Britney and Kevin: Chaotic when it debuted in May, but for the most part, I find it hard to watch these shows week after week and get involved in these people who are way too involved with themselves.

I'm not sure why The Surreal Life has managed to hold my interest through four (going on five) seasons, other than the fact that there's inherently more drama in the concept of seven strangers picked to live in a house together than there is in seeing how much money Jessica Simpson can spend on lingerie in a day.
The staged situation shows are slightly more palatable to me (though I've still never cared enough to sample I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here, Celebrity Boot Camp, Celebrity Fit Club, Dancing With the Stars or Hit Me Baby One More Time). I'm not sure why The Surreal Life has managed to hold my interest through four (going on five) seasons, other than the fact that there's inherently more drama in the concept of seven strangers picked to live in a house together than there is in seeing how much money Jessica Simpson can spend on lingerie in a day.

Celebrities have also invaded traditional Reality shows, serving as judges/hosts/advisors. Paula Abdul was among the first to kick off this trend (not counting Matt & Ben), and after she proved that the water was fine, she was quickly followed by Tyra Banks, Jay Mohr, Donald Trump, Heidi Klum, Faye Dunaway, Vivica A. Fox, Sylvester Stallone, Sugar Ray Leonard, Missy Elliott and coming this fall to NBC, Martha Stewart. The number of shows comprised entirely of talentless nobodies is rapidly dwindling. Even existing franchises like The Bachelor aren't safe from celebrity carpetbaggers (well, quasi-celebrity-by-association) like Charlie O'Connell.

The thing is, while appearing on a Reality show may provide a lucrative boost to an individual D-List star's sagging career2, it has an overall impact on the cult of celebrity. In the golden age of Hollywood, movie stars were glamorous and shrouded in a veil of mystery. They weren't like us or any of the regular folks we encountered in our daily lives. They were special and worthy of being celebrated. Now, thanks to Celebreality, we know that Jessica Simpson's shit literally stinks like everyone else's (maybe moreso).

Once we've become intimately familiar with one celebrity's bathroom habits, what's to keep the delusion of celebrity grandeur going for the rest of the stars in the Hollywood firmament? Tabloids have been prying into the lives of movie stars ever since they exploded into existence, but in the past two months, things seem to have gotten out of control. It's another part of why I'm just not that into Reality TV this summer. I'm more intrigued by the Reality soap operas playing out in the gossip rags and on TV talk shows.

So hot it burns.
The most omnipresent, of course, is the whirlwind TomKat Affair, which grows more and more bizarre and disturbing with each passing Defamer post. Then there's The Incredible Shrinking Lohan postmodernly "doing the Cruise" on Leno while denying the rumors that she's on a strict diet of cocaine and...uh, that's it. And look, over there, it's Russell Crowe Fightin' 'Round the World, then making the media culpa rounds. Playing far more coy are The Beautiful People — Mr. and Future Mrs? Pitt. Their "are they or aren't they" relationship is even more intriguing than Ross & Rachel's. Aww, poor Rachel. And finally, there's the surreality of E!'s more-captivating-than-it-had-any-right-to-be reenactments of the Michael Jackson trial. Any one of these "real life" dramas make for more compelling television than watching Evander Holyfield foxtrot (or so I imagine).3

Perhaps it's unfair to blame Celebreality for demystifying Hollywood. There was no Celebreality when Hugh Grant perfected the talk show act of contrition in 1995 or when Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were the scandalous couple of the day, long before anyone thought to mash up paramours names like Bennifer and Brangelina. Still, now that "They" have invited us (and our cameras) into their personal lives, it no longer feels like an invasion of privacy. It's more like their will be done. We're merely their enablers.

1There's actually a third category of Celebreality, and it's the one I find to be most promising. It's a hybrid wherein "Regular Joes" and "Celebrities" live and compete with one another. The Real Gilligan's Island (which is way more enjoyable than it has any right to be and has totally slipped through my summer aversion to Reality) brilliantly tosses two "movie stars" onto the island with 12 civilian castaways, and so we get to see how Rachel Hunter interacts with everyday folks or what happens when Erika Eleniak inhabits an island with a couple of Gilligans who came of age while freeze-framing her performance in Under Siege. And even though William Shatner was acting on quasi-Reality mini-series Invasion Iowa, playing "William Shatner", he still got involved in the lives of very real people, and that dynamic was quite compelling to watch. My dream is for an Amazing Race-type show where celebrities are paired up with non-celebrities and are dependent on one another to win (as in those 70s game shows like The $10,000 Pyramid) or a Big Brother-meets-Surreal Life where the house is filled half with celebrities and half with non-celebrities.

2When an A-List sparkly like Britney Spears tries her hand at it, she has nowhere to go but down. And that's exactly where Chaotic took her. However, if the purpose was to help out F-List "celebrity" Kevin Federline, then I suppose it averages out to a wash for the couple.

3Patrick Goldstein expressed similar sentiments a few weeks ago in an article that I swear I didn't read until I was just about done writing this one.

Email the author.

Return to Vol. 1, Episode 7.