Cruel summer

Amateur Whitney Houston covers! "Baywatch" babes turned low-rent spokesmodels! Obscene crank calls! If you found the prime-time season too taxing, summer TV is for you.

By Carina Chocano
Published June 27, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

Summer is here. The days have gotten longer (and are ready to start getting shorter again). TV gets especially saturnalian. Which, you know, is nice. It used to be that summer programming was just a graveyard for network prime-time reruns, and what good was that? With big-time producers on hiatus, or recovering from the blow of not having their series picked up in the fall, what were the season breaks but a cruel reminder that some people get to take the summer off?

Whatever the reasons this valuable patch of broadcast remained fallow, it's now a virtual petri dish in full sprout. Granted, most of the summer shows are either morally or aesthetically objectionable and often both, but screeds seem hopelessly behind the times in our post-post-ironic age. Instead of complaining, why not sit back and feel grateful that you can finally take a break from it all? Following the dramatizations of current events on "The West Wing" and "Law & Order" week after week can be so taxing. Bad TV, on the other hand, gives and gives and asks so little in return. And who knows? Once you've seen some of the new fall shows, you might look back on summer as a glorious, golden age.

"American Idol: The Search for a Superstar," Tuesdays 9 p.m., FOX

An old-fashioned talent show with the new-fashioned feature of value-added public humiliation, "American Idol" is a "Gong Show" the Marquis de Sade would love. This is not to suggest that "American Idol" is a rip-off of "The Gong Show." It's a rip-off of the U.K. hit "Pop Idol." And it's got the nasty Brit to prove it.

"American Idol" is a talent competition in which contestants compete by singing, and choosing their wardrobes wisely. A triumvirate of judges -- aforementioned nasty U.K. record executive Simon Cowell, singer Paula Abdul and music producer Randy Jackson -- provide insta-critiques of each of the contestants' performances as well as a few reality checks here and there. Their observations are not as uniformly tart as you might hope -- Randy is measured, Paula is gentle (though there's something in her smile that says, "That's right, honey. Be a big star. See where it got me") -- but Simon is a real shredder. As the judges narrow the contestants down to 30 finalists, viewers call in to decide who gets to move to the next round, and the winner obtains a record contract and a management deal. All we have to worry about is having him or her pop up in a Pepsi commercial a few years down the line. It's all so very vicious.

Sadly, tone-deaf contestants who dared to deviate from regulation beauty standards were weeded out weeks ago, and the weeping has subsided somewhat since the early days. (The contestants that remain suffer from dangerously high self-esteem, and given how prefabricated their dreams are, it would be gratifying to see more tears.) As a result, the "show" part of the show has become a thing that must be endured, as one aspirant after another snaps on two inches of glittery spandex and belts out a Whitney Houston number. But when Simon opens his mouth, you remember why you cared in the first place. In fact, "American Idol" kind of makes you wish that the road to stardom really were this public and this final. After all, why shouldn't we elect our own singing stars? It's not as if we elect our own president.

"Sorority Life," Mondays 10:30 p.m., MTV

A sorority at the University of California at Davis agrees to invite in an MTV camera crew for a peek at what goes on behind the scenes. Finally, questions will be answered like: Why did I get cut from that one sorority during rush that one time simply for having to use the bathroom? Here's why: Because sorority rush is a carefully orchestrated minuet in which the tiniest change of plans can wreak utter havoc. As I discovered too late, I had not only blown my allotted three minutes with one "Debbie" by trotting off to the facilities, I had also thrown the whole meet-and-greet circuit out of whack.

We see none of this sort of thing in "Sorority Life," which, let me tell you, is a big letdown. Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi is not your standard blond coven. In fact, when the tall blonds, some of them juniors and seniors, start showing up, more than one sister is thrown for a loop. Why the sudden influx of babes? As the girls of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi start to suspect, it's those damn cameras. For one thing, Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi is a Jewish sorority, and the rushees are significantly less so. As one curly-haired blond admits to her roommate later, "I didn't even know that Jews don't believe Jesus is the son of God or the Messiah or whatever." What does sincere sisterhood mean to you?

As might be expected, the decision of whom to pledge has started to create a rift among the sisters. Tensions run dangerously high, as some believe that they should stick to the kind of girl they've pledged in the past, and others believe that tall blonds will add some much needed diversity to the organization. "I don't mean to be a bitch, and I don't mean to judge people, but the way some of these girls gussied themselves up to come to this event, I'm just getting a gut feeling inside that these girls aren't right," says one.

"These girls come in wearing a lot of makeup," says another. "They're really pretty -- which I think is fine. But I think that some of our other sisters are almost intimidated by that."

This being MTV, the show is less observational than it is deterministic. Ultimately, even the curly blond is invited to join. Along with several other Hillel-oblivious buddies, she is invited to move into "the pledge house," an MTV-decorated pleasure palace that looks suspiciously new. Once the new pledges have moved in, senior members of the sorority proceed to lay out some pledge-house ground rules, which would seem draconian even if these girls were not such, how you say, coquettes. No boys in the house after 11 p.m., no boys in the bedrooms, no drinking in the house, no parties. Cut to boys in the house after 11 p.m., boys in the bedroom, drinking, parties.

Ultimately, "Sorority Life" promises to be less about sorority life than about the sudden death of one sorority, which is a shame. From what I remember of my brief stint in the Greek system, the real thing is far more bizarre than any "Real World" rip-off could ever be. My own favorite memory: Passing the gavel in chapter meetings and being allowed to say one negative thing if it was followed by something positive. "You gu-u-uys, when you blow-dry your hair at 7 in the morning can you make sure and shut the bathroom door? Some of us are still sleeping. Thanks. Oh, and dinner was awesome."

Now that I think of it, I believe I was sworn not to disclose anything that went on at chapter meetings, even that stuff about dinner. Did the Panhellenic Association agree to "Sorority Life"? Come to think of it, does the name Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi sound kind of ... fake?

"Pet Psychic," Mondays, 8 p.m., Animal Planet

I tried to get an interview with the Pet Psychic, who is a real person named Sonya Fitzpatrick, for this column. That was just a ruse for getting her on the phone so she could talk with my cat. Perhaps she sensed this, or perhaps her publicist is a critic psychic, because she was, unfortunately, unavailable. She's been traveling to promote her new show on Animal Planet. I did, however, receive a mini Magic 8-Ball key chain from Animal Planet, which I've been consulting dutifully. Is Sonya Fitzpatrick really talking to animals when she kneels down beside them? All signs point to yes.

Fitzpatrick, who attributes her peculiar gift to having suffered a severe hearing loss as a child, can talk to ponies. And not only is she a pet psychic, but she's also a pet psychic therapist. Owners call her when their animals start acting strange: when they stop eating, for example, or start barking more than they should. Fitzpatrick gets right to the heart of the problem. In the case of the pony, it stopped eating because it was depressed when its baby was taken away too soon. The pony also mentions, in passing, that it likes carrots. When Fitzpatrick relates this to the pony's owner, who confirms that the foal was weaned too early, the pony relaxes and starts to chow down.

As a girl, Fitzpatrick assumed everyone could hear what animals were saying. She says they communicate with her telepathically with pictures and feelings, as they do with other animals. As for what occupies their minds, she says they are interested only in the things that matter to them: their families, their next walk, their next meal and their physical well-being. Anyway, I come not to challenge the pet psychic, but to praise her. Petting a Great Dane in her studio, she turns to the dog's owner and demands to know, "When's he going to have some more French fries?" The owner squeals with laughter. "That's his favorite food!"

Fitzpatrick also talks to deceased pets. And it turns out that when pets say howdy from the beyond, they are often hanging out with our departed friends and relatives. The only time my credulity was strained -- and admittedly, it's very limber -- was when she talked to a depressed alligator at the Gatorland Zoo in Orlando. I was under the impression that reptiles lack a cerebral cortex and are therefore incapable of experiencing feelings of resentment toward zookeeper friends for switching from red meat to chicken. Shows what I know.

"Dog Eat Dog," Mondays 9 p.m., NBC

If you like "Fear Factor," you'll love "Dog Eat Dog"! At least that's what the producers of "Fear Factor" are hoping, since they produced it. They also produced "The Weakest Link," which proved, in fact, to be the weakest link. This time they wisely left the hostile Brits to Fox. Hosting the dogs is "Baywatch" babe Brooke Burns, because nothing says "There's a low-end spokesmodel gig in my future" like a stint on that lifeguard show.

See if you can't guess what it's about. Each week, six sexy contestants fail to answer trivia questions and then make up for it by doing amazingly stupid and dangerous stunts. Burns presents the players with "a physical or mental challenge to be completed in a certain time limit." The ultimate goal is to win $25,000. Alas, with each new season of reality shows, the contestants get cuter and the stakes get lower. But the experience of watching Brooke Burns present anyone with a mental challenge is alone worth the price of admission.

"Crank Yankers," Sundays 10:30 p.m., Comedy Central

From the fecund minds of "Man Show" hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla comes "Crank Yankers," a celebration of laughter at the expense of others.

The show features comedians making crank calls to record stores, directory-assistance operators, real estate agents and hardware stores, then taping the results for our amusement. Among the comedians making calls are Stephen Colbert, Tracy Morgan, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes and Tenacious D. A cast of Muppet-esque puppets provides the visuals. David Alan Grier plays Danny, a buppie puppet (buppet?) who vomits constantly while on the phone, and Sykes makes an appearance as Wanda Murphy, a woman who calls a towing company to complain that someone has left a turd in her car. Relive your childhood as the myriad colorful euphemisms for bowel movements are lovingly revived. After the overstimulation of "Dog Eat Dog," "Crank Yankers" is indeed a welcome change of pace.

If summer shows are for you, look out for the next wave. July will bring "She Spies" (premiering July 20 at 10 p.m. on NBC), which is described by creator Vince Manze as "Lethal Weapon" with women. Then there's the astonishingly original "Single in the City" (July 7 at 8 p.m. on We), described as a "real-life 'Sex and the City,'" which features bachelorettes looking for love in a slightly more temperate climate than the last time we saw bachelorettes. And let's not neglect "Worst-Case Scenario" (July 10 at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Pacific, on TBS), which is based on the series of handbooks by the same name and puts more dimwits in peril for our viewing pleasure, under the pretext of demonstrating how to get out of "the world's most extreme situations." Here's hoping one of those situations is living a real-life "Sex and the City."

Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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