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Tuned In: Reality TV puts bite into midseason shows

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Panelists who showed up here for a press conference about "Fame: The New Reality," an upcoming AMC documentary about their lives after appearing on a "reality" TV show, discovered the unpleasant reality of their place in the Hollywood pecking order: They got bumped from the lineup when another presentation ran long.

Premiering June 16, the one-hour documentary was co-produced and co-directed by Squirrel Hill native Edward Rosenstein.

"These people got half of the American dream," Rosenstein said. "They got fame, but you're supposed to get fame and money, so it's about the human drama. We always wondered what happened to these people when they're thrown off these shows. None of them can go back to their old lives."

George Boswell (a k a "Chicken George") from the first "Big Brother" said appearing on TV "was an awesome experience."

Aspiring actor Chadwick Pelletier, who appeared in 1999's "Road Rules: Australia," said he had a tough time dealing with the editing of his reality show, because it made him look like a jerk of a frat boy. "I thought it would be the exposure I was looking for. I didn't realize they would give me a different identity."

But the trend toward reality programs shows no sign of abating. Unscripted series have taken up permanent residence alongside sitcoms, dramas and newsmagazines as staples of the networks' prime-time lineups.

Sunday night, "High School Reunion" premiered to the best ratings in its time slot on The WB since September 1999.

Tonight at 8, CBS premieres "Star Search." Pittsburgh native and current New York resident Steve Byrne, 28, will be among those competing in the comedian category.

"The Bachelorette" premieres at 9 tonight on ABC, and earlier this week, Fox's "Bachelor" rip-off, "Joe Millionaire," introduced America to a 28-year-old bachelor who lies to his prospective brides about his wealth. He's actually a construction worker (and sometime model) who earns $19,000 per year, according to Fox. "Joe Millionaire" premiered to high overnight ratings, coming in second place in its first half-hour and first place in its second half-hour.

But with the advent of reality series, actors are losing job opportunities. C-list celebrities, it seems, have decided that if they can't fight reality shows, they'll join them.

"I heard people on 'The Mole' saying, 'Well, I can be as entertaining as some normal guy on a reality show,' " said Kathy Griffin, one of the celebs on "Celebrity Mole Hawaii" (10 tonight, ABC). "It doesn't really work that way."

An unabashed fan of reality programs, Griffin said she would never appear on one again. She expected a cushy, made-for-celebrities edition of the "The Mole" and was surprised to find herself jumping off a cliff.

"It was humiliating and horrible," she said. "I would say possibly more humiliating than four years of 'Suddenly Susan.' I don't want to be in a bathing suit on television. I'm too old for that."

"Celebrity Mole" takes the game's standard format -- one of the players is a mole trying to sabotage the others; contestants have to figure out which one is the traitor -- and simply adds celebrities. The appeal of "The Mole" seems to be more the mystery of the title character's identity, and that element of game play is preserved in this edition. Ahmad Rashad replaces Anderson Cooper as host, but otherwise it's business as usual.

With comedians Griffin and Kim Coles aboard, it just means a better chance for snappy repartee among the players, who include Corbin Bernsen ("L.A. Law"), Stephen Baldwin ("Biosphere"), Michael Boatman ("Spin City"), supermodel Frederique and quiet, shy teen star Erik von Detten ("Dinotopia").

"The beauty of von Detten," Griffin says in tonight's premiere, "is nobody knows if he's young and stupid or the Mole."

Fans of "The Mole" should be satisfied, although I found the first episode pretty boring save for the occasional sniping. Griffin said she would have preferred to see more of the dirt exposed.

"I think [the producers are] very concerned with the game," she said. "If it was up to me, there would be less game and more dish, more fighting and gossiping and more getting along and not getting along. I love that crap.... There was a time where I passed out, and they didn't put that in the show. I was like, 'Are you guys crazy?'"

The WB's "The Surreal Life" (9 p.m. tomorrow, WCWB) might as well be called "Celebrities Behaving Badly." In a rip-off of the "The Real World," seven stars -- and I use the term "stars" loosely -- are forced to live together in a palatial pad for 10 days.

Brande Roderick, a former Playboy playmate and star of "Baywatch: Hawaii," is disappointed when Jerri Manthey ("Survivor: The Australian Outback") shows up as the last cast member in place of Robin Givens. Roderick complains Manthey isn't an actor or musician. Actually, Manthey was acting before "Survivor." Roderick, of course, is a model and "Baywatch" star.

Manthey plays her outspoken, rhymes-with-witch role again. Who knew typecasting would become a problem for stars of reality shows?

MC Hammer, now a minister of some sort, is the moral conscience of the house, refusing to eat sushi off the body of a naked woman splayed on a table in the back yard. Corey Feldman also refuses to partake, but only because his girlfriend isn't with him (evidently threesomes are de rigeur for the "Lost Boys" star).

Motley Crue singer Vince Neil seems relatively sane, as does Gabrielle Carteris ("Beverly Hills, 90210"), who says she doesn't want to be the house mom but almost immediately becomes just that. Emmanuel Lewis ("Webster") laughs. And giggles. And laughs some more.

As with all reality shows, the sole appeal of "The Surreal Life" is voyeurism combined with the satisfaction of knowing celebrities are as adept at hypocrisy and rude behavior as the everyday people who usually populate these type of programs.

Still more reality!

Just when you thought you'd heard all the ideas for reality series, Animal Planet introduces "Pet Star" (8 p.m. Jan. 31), which network general manager Michael Cascio described as "American Idol" meets "stupid pet tricks." The show will feature a punting pig, a rat basketball squad and a lobster doing handstands (or would that be clawstands?).

TLC has an Americanized version of the British import "What Not to Wear" (previews 10 p.m. Jan. 18; premieres 10 p.m. March 8). Each one-hour episode features a person nominated by friends and family "as someone in dire need of a makeover." The walking fashion faux pas gets $5,000 and advice from stylists.

'Seinfeld' back in prime

Still miss watching "Seinfeld" in prime time? Beginning tonight, you can see it again. TBS will air back-to-back reruns of the classic sitcom from 8 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday nights.

Reeve to 'Smallville'

Daily Variety reports Christopher Reeve, star of the 1978 "Superman" movie and its sequels, will appear on a February sweeps episode of The WB's young Superman series "Smallville" as a scientist who helps Clark Kent learn more about his mysterious origins.

The new AMC

Plenty of viewers have complained to me about the new direction of AMC, which no longer goes by the name American Movie Classics. The network added commercials and started to air more recent movies that are anything but "classic." ("Halloween 5" is scheduled to air Friday night.)

All these changes are part of AMC's attempt to draw advertiser-coveted younger viewers, the mantra of all networks.

"We're looking toward the future, we're looking to grow our audience," said AMC general manager Noreen O'Loughlin. "We are a network for movie lovers, but we're looking to expand our programming and really intrigue people with entertainment about movies and about the world of movies for movie lovers."

Now bearing the slogan "TV for movie people," the network will continue to mutate, continuing to be a basic cable movie network while building a night of television programming. That includes the documentary about reality show stars, another documentary about "Gay Hollywood" and a stop-motion series, "The Wrong Coast," that parodies movies, television and pop culture.

"Shows like these provide signature and definition immediately to a network in a way that our slate of movies cannot do on their own," said Rob Sorcher, AMC senior vice president of programming and production. "This is what's going to lead us into people coming en masse to AMC."

And lead disgruntled AMC viewers, en masse, to Turner Classic Movies.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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