Back in the 90s there was a TV show called “Cheaters”. Deliberately cheesy and tackily filmed in Texas, the show busted real-life adulterers out in the open. With cameras in tow and cuckolded hubby or wife, we got to see the cheaters usually in the act and then, well, fists went flying and so did the expletives. Afterwards, there was a semi-serious but always ludicrous announcement on the screen that invited viewers to call in if they too suspected that their spouses were cheating. Now this was entertainment!
“Cheaters” is still on in syndication, but it’s decidedly tame by today’s TV standards. If nothing else, 2008 will go down as a remarkably eventful year for pop culture, and what passed for actual taste on the boob tube usually managed to have come from some kind of rancid sewer —which is just what we wanted, because the ratings for some of these programs also went through the roof. We live in a cheapened, extremely coarse culture where no one reads, no one follows the news much, and where we have created a cottage industry where entertainment and “reality stars” have become part and parcel in our lives. This year has seen one of the most exciting political campaigns in modern history, and on November 4, we witnessed the ascension of a new president who himself represented a lofty goal, a sense that we were somehow better than all the rhetoric that had been spewed in the months before it. So we had the grand moments –the victory speech in Grant Park, the sight of our new First Family—and yet we also had the sight of Oprah Winfrey bawling on the shoulders of a stranger. It was that kind of year. For every good moment, we were content that there would always be something banal close by.
Here is a list (you know you LOVE them) of the worst trends in TV this year. These are the troubling patterns that somehow reared their ugly head most prominently in 2008, and which probably mean they will be considered “normal” (as in, “oh yeah, that”) by next year. Can you remember a time without reality TV? Can you say “asshole” on TV? Of course. Did Billy Bush really ask Michael Phelps if he is dating a stripper? Oh yeah, that.
5. Embarrassing Product Placement
There is a show on Univision called “Sabado Gigante” that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen —it’s a variety show —comedy, singing, family reunions, game show, talk show—all in one but one of its other characteristics is that they have blatant advertisements on the program, with jingles sung by the rotund host Don Francisco or his models. I used to think this was pretty ridiculous because the show was doing what TV variety shows (itself a form of entertainment from another era) used to do in the 50s and 60s. I know I am too young to remember this, but TV shows then used to be openly sponsored by corporations like GM or Proctor and Gamble. Without the latter, for example, we wouldn’t have had “soaps”. But again, this is 2008 and I used to think that Don Francisco was simply pandering to the advertisers and doing what amounted to selling out.
But I was wrong because it seems all you see nowadays on network TV is blatant advertising. It is everywhere and it’s in your face. You’re not supposed to notice it, but how can you avoid it? And it’s not just the reality shows anymore. That was Lara Spencer from “The Insider” appearing in a commercial break during “Worst Week” talking about the very episode we are watching. She isn’t necessarily promoting her horrendous show, but you have to know that CBS (or should I say Viacom) manages to produces both shows. The stars of “Worst Week” (a pretty funny show, by the way, if you can get past the “Meet the Parents” schtick, and marvel in Kyle Bornheimer’s stunning physical comedy) get to appear on Lara’s trashy show as well, so they can get people to watch their show. We also know that any of those Hollywood shows –“The Insider”, “Access Hollywood”, “Extra”—are nothing but promos for stars or movies that need whoring. But I am more concerned about how products creep into our viewing. You don’t really think Ellen is so magnanimous as to really buy everyone in her audience IPods or Electrolux washers during her “Twelve Days of Christmas”, do you? Why is every challenge on “Top Chef” a plug for Glad bags or Whole Foods? Why is every prize that is awarded to weekly winners on “The Amazing Race” a plug for that travel company with the wacky gnome? Isn’t the whole show about travel?
4. Women Continue to be the Worst Creatures Ever, Worthy of Ridicule
Male producers seem to never tire of finding ways to humiliate the fairer sex. At the risk of sounding like a feminist, it’s hard to argue that our image of women on TV is anything less than a constant parade of ridiculing, of ogling, of showing the most unflattering and deranged people we’ve ever seen. Oh yeah, but they’re also hot. You wouldn’t want to actually meet them and marry them because you’d think they all had these unusual, batty complexes about them.
The attorneys on “Boston Legal” –I mean the male ones—seem to have it together: polished, trained at the best law schools, but it’s the catty women who fight a lot, worry about who will be getting into bed with Alan, the way-over-the-top James Spader character. When he ultimately rejects them in the end and runs to William Shatner, then you know they’re as disposable as the new female recruits next season. On “ER”, a new Australian doctor joined the cast but he was also (wink, wink) a bit of a cad, bedding every one of the female residents, which of course would later cause havoc in Trauma #2 the next day. Wasn’t the reason why “Lipstick Jungle” was cancelled that we preferred looking at the hot babes only and not listen to their problems? And what’s up with “Grey’s Anatomy”? They went from all sex/all the time (never mind the medical stuff) to whining-lead-female-why-can’t-I-get-some to the new storyline in which the Katherine Heigl character is having sex with a dead person. Oh but let’s get rid of the two chicks that locked lips earlier this year. Ugh, too creepy.
Things are far worse on the new reality show, “Momma’s Boys” on NBC. This ludicrous creation from the head of Ryan Seacrest would have us believe that there are three lunkhead guys who are looking for a wife and need their clingy Moms to help them make these decisions. Let’s put Mom in a mansion with 32 girls with low self-esteem, toss in several former Penthouse pets or Playboy models, make sure a few have mega breast jobs, and watch the fun begin.It’s bad enough that there are regular segments called “Mom dresses son on Elimination Night”, in which Mom literally is helping to put these 20-somethings pants on as they hector them with advice about how such and such is slutty, or that such and such is “not good for you”. Hey! Let’s throw in a racist Mom who is so odious to her own gender as she spews hatred for Black women, Asian women and even Jewish women. She is so full of herself and completely immature in the process that we don’t even care after a while.
Last night there was the heartbreaking premise that if one of the girls lost the cooking challenge (with the Food Network’s Tyler Florence, puffy and almost self-contented), they could well expect that a Mom would open up their “file” from the locked box, and all their secrets would be exposed to the world. The “secrets”? Some of the girls’ explicit shots from the Internet, credit reports, etc., that would possibly make these girls even that more debased in the Momma’s Boys eyes, or even the viewing public. Like these girls are not humiliated enough to be paraded at the end of each episode near a pool so the suitors can either keep them for one more week or kick them to the curb. Even the mousy Megan, the virtual doormat and ugly duckling who was made up to look hot and desirable, wasn’t saved because she took herself off this sinking, odious ship. Or last night, you’d think Cara, the dimwitted blonde “singer/model” would have burned the whole house down during her angry meltdown at the end, when she got the boot. Girl didn’t even get a date while she was on the show! And on this show, it’s apparently OK for the guys to break up with you by sending a text message. Ha ha! Such balls.
3. Anyone Can Be On TV
What does Gayle King do? For years, this wide-hipped hanger-on and BFF of Oprah Winfrey has made it her special duty to simply appear on her friend’s show and essentially play a role as a hanger-on, trading quips, appearing to be candid about Oprah’s private life, or, worse, make it seem like being her best friend is just about the greatest thing in the world. Which perhaps it is.Must be nice that Oprah can buy her best friend an $8 million penthouse apartment along Michigan Avenue so she can help her, I don’t know, oversee the covers of “O”” magazine and select recipes. How then, does this make her a TV personality? I don’t care about her proximity or her wealth, but since when was being “Oprah’s BFF” a reason for being famous and grinning your way through appearances on other shows (Oprah-owned, natch) like Rachael Ray? Gayle once had a career, in case anyone cares: she was the anchor of the local news affiliate in Hartford, CT for many years. Now she goes on Oprah and does segments such as “Best Sandwich in America”, swooning over hamburgers and doing stuff that Oprah is too good for. And she grins her veneers all the way through these segments. “Look at me and Oprah”, she’s saying. Like when she and her BFF took a cross-country driving tour last year. Or when she likely convinced her BFF that each Friday she needed to feature her, the obnoxious Mrs. George Stephanopoulos and the cipher Mr. Kelly Ripa, to do a live show in which they would chit chat about current events. (Hold the references to Obama!). That Gayle King is one powerful force and there’s no sign she is going away anytime soon.
How do people with seemingly little talent get on TV? Ask Ben Lyons. He may tell you, “Hey, you should ask my Dad, Jeffrey”. Jeffrey is the milquetoast film reviewer for a syndicated show called “Lyons and Bailies”, and has been a reviewer on TV for many years. He isn’t Roger Ebert in his sharpness or prodigiousness. And his son is a pale imitation. But did that stop producers of “At the Movies” from casting Ben Lyons as one of the two new film reviewer hosts (along with Ben Mankiewicz) because the previous hosts, Richard Roeper and whomever-was-replacing Ebert were now history? I’m not saying that his Dad got him the job, but, good Lord, this guy is terrible! It’s not just the goofy grin that derails the show each week, but I wonder if his taste in movies is suspect. Saying that “I am Legend” was the best movie last year, or that “Bedtime Stories” deserved to be seen last week, he pulls you in with this guffawing, cloying, fratboy-type delivery as if are content to get the most watered down, “dude-this-is-rad!” review, compared to the more measured efforts by Mankiewicz. Truth is, “At the Movies” is a pitiful show.
Gone is the pompous Roeper from the previous incarnation of the show, but at least that show had solid and informative reviews from people you’d trust –a Michael Philips or a Tony Scott from the New York Times. Where’d they get Ben Lyons? From the E! entertainment network, where he still holds the title of “Movie Dude”. You practically cringe each time he comes on the screen and you even expect him to high-five any other male next to him if he could. He doesn’t mention all his movie-star buddies like Anna Faris or Jamie Lynn Sigler (I know, reaching high), nor does he mention possible conflict of interest (some dialogue that was, alas, cut out of “House Bunny”, a movie he said “Rent it”). I am also apparently not the only one who cannot stand this guy. The website www.stopbenlyons.com is a blog devoted to the complete destruction of Lyons and careful deconstruction of every word this idiot says; so I am not alone. Finally, just in time, the LA Times called him the “most hated critic in America”.
So on to 2009, and the apparent dearth of any real talent, you know –the kind that requires a lot of experience and careful study. Where trained actors have to wait tables to earn money but pseudo-celebrities from the cast of “The Hills”, the harridans on “The Real Housewives”, Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood”, Debbie Matenopoulos of E!, etc., can mug for the camera and overnight we –that’s right, we—make them into celebrities. No experience needed. It helps if your Dad’s name pulls some strings (Ben Lyons, Brody Jenner), if you pals with megastars (Gayle King), have a nice rack and spew wacky conservative blather that you know nothing about (Elisabeth Hasselbeck, from “Survivor: Africa” eons ago), or just plain starve yourself into thinness (Matenopoulos). Welcome to your world, and in 2009, it’ll just get worse.
2. NBC Just Doesn’t Care Anymore
In a move that stunned many in the entertainment industry recently, NBC announced that Jay Leno, its cash cow for the “Tonight Show” for almost 17 years, is actually not leaving the network. Rather than allowing him to be picked up for some late-night slot at ABC, for example, NBC decided to keep him and –here’s the scary part—make him a permanent fixture every weeknight during prime time, meaning 10:00 to 11:00 pm.
It’s not just the rewarding of mediocrity here and the certain continual cash that NBC will make from Leno and save by not having to pay for scripted series. It’s about the fact that NBC is just lazily dealing with this and assuring that for every night next year there will be the same queasy monologues, the hackneyed “Jaywalking” segments, the canned responses by Kevin, the happy Black sidekick, John Melendez, the cue card holder late of the Howard Stern show, etc. What’s going on here? Either NBC didn’t want to develop the latest “ER” (gone this year after 15 years, thank God) or “Law and Order” franchise, or it didn’t want to produce another reality show like its dopey “Biggest Loser” enterprises. (And what’s this I hear about 2-hour episodes of “Celebrity Apprentice”?)
This is cynicism pure and simple.NBC figures it has it made with Leno, and who cares about the quality or the very real possibility that we will tire quickly of him because he would be in our living rooms a whole hour early. Screw Conan, I guess: he moves his show to Burbank, as has been promised to him, but now there’s the prospect that Leno will (still) get the best guests because a 10 pm is a bigger draw to whatever Tom Hanks or Shia LeBeouf-craptastic movie needs to be promoted. By the way, Jimmy Fallon takes over where Conan used to be.
1. Ryan Seacrest Must Be Shot
Case in point: not just producing and thus making bank out of the relentlessly stinky (and just renewed) “Denise Richards” trainwreck on E!, but he is also responsible for the dreck called “Momma’s Boys” on NBC and the unintentionally silly “Bromance” dating show on MTV, which premiered this week. Yes, “dating show” is the only way to describe a show in which a spoiled handsome son of someone famous has a show in which males from across the country want to be with him, i.e., be his pal, his confidant, a person to cry with, a person to say things like “bro’s before ho’s”, someone to share brewskis with, someone to snuggle with late at night, etc. You get the point. This from the mind of Ryan Seacrest. I am all for general openness about one’s proclivities, but I don’t think he realizes how horribly this show translates on to the TV screen. It’s bad enough that when dealing with male/female relationships, Seacrest doesn’t mind exploiting the trashy girls with the boob jobs, cutting them off with text messages. Here, on this man-to-man love bonding exercise, Brody gets to assemble all the guys in a pool, “knee to knee” (as he puts it), and then pick off the undesirable bro’ each week.
It’s a humiliating experience for all involved, but to be paraded on national TV to simply compete to be another male’s favorite plaything reeks of Seacrest’s own ego and perhaps own needs to satisfy his own urges. Seacrest is a Momma’s Boy. He wants to be in that pool too. He wants to live like a bro’ the rest of his life, and given his cash and apparent desire to own every possible media gig out there, he is well on his way. What? You didn’t see him practically propping up 79-year-old Dick Clark on the “Rockin’ Eve” special, wishing he’d hurry up those slurred words? You didn’t see his creepy Crest toothpaste commercial repeated over and over again? You don’t listen to his canned nationwide radio show every day? Oh, I get it. You can’t wait until next week, when the American Idol juggernaut begins and he starts his awkward hosting gig again and all those lewd innuendos and macho swagger between him and Simon Cowell. Ah yes, 2009 is here, and under every rock you will be treated to the genius that is Ryan Seacrest. Happy New Year.