American pop culture is a fickle temptress, indeed. From the time that we're young, she convinces us that we're destined for greatness -- or at least for massive grassy lawns and two-car garages and beautiful, giggling blond children -- and then when we get our average-size grassy lawns and our bitchy redheaded stepchildren, we feel cheated.
When I was a kid, I thought that when I got older I'd be married to a man who looked just like a Ken doll, I'd have a Dorothy Hamill haircut (which I thought would set me apart as the energetic, spunky type), and I'd live on an enormous farm somewhere in the middle of Kansas. Instead, I have scraggly hair, I live in a small blue and white house that my neighbor says looks just like a fish restaurant, and if I so much as hear someone else being described as "energetic," it makes me want to take a long nap.
Instead of a life packed with wonderful Fourth of July picnics and romantic strolls on the beach like we pictured when we were little, life is filled with annoying recorded telemarketing calls and muddy paw prints on the kitchen floor, all of which unfold against a backdrop of sugary teen pop and cheery radio ads about good family fun and sizzlin' summer sales and an oppressive mandate to be upbeat and polite, at all costs. Living in America is like going on an amazing date with a pretty girl, and after dinner you go back to her house and she puts on that Sarah McLachlan song "Your love is better than ice cream!" -- and instead of kissing her, you're forced to vomit all over your brand-new shoes.
Yes, American pop culture is a big-breasted siren whose sickly sweet tunes lead us onto rocky shores. So how do we deal with the countless disappointments of American life? Well, if our name is Mary Winkler, we handle the disappointment by pulling out a gun and blowing our kindly minister husband away, then packing the kids into the car and hitting the road. The rest of us take all of our anger and disappointment out on has-been celebrities.
Celebrity fear and loathing
Here's how the process works: We're standing in line at the grocery store and we glance over at Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston on the cover of People, a photo taken on their wedding day. "My, my, my, it must be nice to be so happy and so sexy and so fucking rich," we think in spite of ourselves. "It must be nice to have had sex with Brad Pitt and then order in from Spago and watch bad TV in bed with Brad Pitt, who would probably be naked at the time. It would be nice to eat a nice pasta and watch 'The Amazing Race' within a few feet of Brad Pitt's juicy meat Chiclets." Then we go home and eat something gray and limp with our stupid boyfriend/husband with his same old stories and his dumb hair.
A few years later, Brad leaves Jennifer for Angelina Jolie, and we feel oddly satisfied and enraged and thrilled by the whole thing. Ooo, that Angelina, she is bad news but ... guess they weren't so perfect and so happy after all, huh? Ha ha. Serves them right, for rubbing their perfection in our faces!
Since we can't watch Brad and Jen bicker or mud-wrestle yet, because they're still big stars, we have to get our kicks by watching other, less important celebrities struggle and fail.
As you'll recall, it all began with "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" in which a pack of mostly aging F-list celebrities sat around bitching at each other in the jungle, all the while horrifying us with how terrible their scientifically engineered plastic faces looked without makeup. These days, the networks have moved on to humiliating celebrities not by locking them up together or dumping them on some soggy island, but by forcing them to dance the tango or attempt double axles on the ice without breaking their necks.
For the most part, though, the networks are far less enamored with celebreality than they once were. But as the mainstream loses interest, VH1, like a greasy old pervert, still seems to savor the countless indignities of the celebreality genre. Like that fateful afternoon when Aqualung, fresh from a NAMBLA meeting, discovered a crumpled copy of the children's section of the Sears catalog in the trash outside of Kentucky Fried Chicken, VH1 soon discovered that it could create hits with limited resources. It seems audiences don't require a gaggle of celebrities, à la "The Surreal Life," to hold their interest. No, all those discriminating audiences wanted was one or two F-list celebrities, preferably with no recent accomplishments or credits to their names beyond occasional humiliating appearances in the tabloids.
Everyone agreed that "The Osbournes" was a little deceptive in its popularity, since you couldn't find a family that bizarre and screwy yet lovable just anywhere. The first real tipoff that audiences would eat pretty much anything covered in the melted-Velveeta goodness of celebreality was MTV's "Newlyweds," a show featuring two unpopular pop singers holed up in a McMansion together, pretending they could stand each other.
But even with the far-reaching impact of "Newlyweds," no one could've predicted that VH1 would soon become the Celebreality Channel. Could this be the same channel boomers used to flip to for their daily allowance of Sting and Kenny G videos? Can you imagine the bizarre culture clashes that must've arisen over at the VH1 offices?
Executive 1: So, after our "Behind the Music" special on Michael Bolton, we need something to reel the young folks back in.
Thing 1: OK, what if we did a version of "The Bachelor," except we replace the strait-laced, faux-polite frat boy with Flavor Flav of "Public Enemy," and we use the same aggressive, whoring sea donkeys, but we try to find a few who would rip the limbs off a small animal for the chance to be rich and famous?
Executive 2: That sounds awful. Why don't we rerun footage of that Fleetwood Mac reunion concert?
Thing 2: Fleetwood what? Hey, let's get that middle-aged Brady kid and his "America's Next Top Model" girlfriend -- they totally deserve their own show.
Thing 1: Or Tori Spelling. Let's get her to do something really sad and humiliating -- her agent says she'll do anything!
Executive 1: Right, the kids remember Donna Martin.
Thing 2: And they hate her, more importantly.
Thing 1: Ooo! Ooo! Let's set Brian Austin Green's head on fire!
Thing 2: Let's throw the Olsen twins into a pit of starving coyotes!
No, Tori, no!
But don't be mad at the low-hanging-fruit-eating bats at VH1. Way down deep inside, they're just like you and me -- only they don't have souls.
If you doubt me, tune in for "So Notorious" (check listings) a celebreality sitcom focused on making Tori Spelling's life even more of a living hell than it already is.
First of all, do we really need to take down Tori Spelling? Hasn't she suffered enough already? If she were naturally odd-looking I would never mention it, but Tori has the whacked-out appearance of a girl whose parents, TV producer Aaron Spelling and his wife, apparently allowed her to have a drastic nose job before her features were fully formed. The girl has big eyes, big lips, a big forehead ... and a tiny, button nose swimming around in the middle of a huge void in the middle of her face where we can only assume a nice, big, healthy schnoz used to be.
I know you've seen and met women with this problem before, women with huge, beautiful features and dumb pug noses that don't match the rest of their faces. Someone please tell me what the hell is wrong with big noses on women. I know there are limits, I know that some noses have big terrible bumps in them, I know that some noses have strange hook shapes, but why not just straighten the hook, smooth out the bump, and move on? Why rip the entire nose off the face, and replace it with a hideous little Michael Jackson pig nose? Remember how pretty Jennifer Grey of "Dirty Dancing" was, before some butcher yanked off her perfectly lovely, interesting nose and replaced it with the nose of a 5-year-old girl?
But we can't blame teenaged Spelling for her Hollywood idiot parents' bad decisions. We can't blame her for her bizarre oversize tits, which look ashamed of themselves, perched in the middle of her tiny frame. Tori seems like a reasonably nice woman with a sense of humor about herself and thick enough skin to endure mean jokes about her buggy eyes and spoiled princess status.
But should Spelling endure such jokes? Why does her manager go along with this? Why don't her parents or her friends tell her not to appear on a show about what a loser she is? "So Notorious" is just like "The Comeback," except it's a lot less funny and Spelling plays herself, not some fictional loser. Plus, "So Notorious" is scripted, Spelling is an executive producer on the show, and we learn all about her twisted childhood along the way.
I know that it's the cool thing for has-beens to make fun of themselves, and it could be argued that other people will make fun of Spelling anyway (bad people like me, for example) and that she might as well join in the fun. Maybe this is the best path for Spelling, maybe this feels comfortable and fun and natural to her, and it's cathartic to lay some of the oddities of her past bare for the public.
But my suspicion is that, in this age of reimagineered celebrity, a lot of people who were once famous want, more than anything else, to be famous once again. These people are surrounded by handlers who also want that fame for them at any cost, and who will advise said F-listers to do whatever it takes to get back into the national spotlight, even if it means becoming the fallen-celebrity scapegoat for all of our big American disappointments.
Dr. Huff 'n' stuff
That said, I'd probably be the sort of celebrity to ride my sad little pony until it died a painful death, and then I'd beat that dead horse with a string of humiliating "special appearances" or some hideous speaking tour, and then I'd sponsor some crappy skin product or do a string of infomercials, and needless to say I'd leap at every opportunity to utterly humiliate myself with mean-spirited jokes and the like.
But fallen Catholics tend to be a little short on pride or dignity. Our guilt about not being quite productive enough, or nice enough, or efficient enough, or tall enough tends to overtake all other emotions, causing us to believe that we need to do better and, in the meantime, we deserve to be punished for our shortcomings, preferably while a crowd gathers to watch.
For a close-up view of this phenomenon, tune in for the second season of "Huff" (Showtime, check listings), in which Hank Azaria plays a psychiatrist, Dr. Craig Huffstodt, who feels responsible for, among other things, 1) his mother's drinking, 2) his brother's schizophrenia, 3) his best friend's insanity, and 4) pretty much every negative thing in his wife's and kid's lives. Once you understand that Huff is overwhelmed by guilt, it's a little easier to take his shrill, scoldy tone.
But he's still not the most interesting character -- too much angry Daddy, not enough thoughtful man trapped at a tough intersection in the land of middle-aged angst. Likewise, Huff's wife, Beth (Paget Brewster), bores me with her pissed-off-wife routine, which repeats itself in predictable ways. "What, my mom's dying and you're getting drunk in Tijuana?" "What, you kissed some other woman? Don't touch me!" I know these are common themes in marriage -- "If I'm suffering, you should suffer" and "Keep your damn eyes, hands and tongue to yourself!" -- but I can't help longing for the ways that the same basic themes were expressed in a sharp, odd character like Brenda of "Six Feet Under."
I know, I know -- stop comparing every drama to "Six Feet Under." It's unrealistic, it's repetitive and it's unfair. But that doesn't change the fact that thinking about "Six Feet Under" makes it clearer what these two characters lack. They lack both the hardness and the softness of Brenda and Nate, and they both need more ideas, more clear perspectives, more philosophies that would separate them from some generic "family man" or "wife" stereotype. When Nate did something crappy, just like in real life, you never really knew how Brenda would react. Sometimes she was enraged over nothing, other times she was resigned and distant over a major infraction. Beth and Huff don't have the same unpredictability.
The more enjoyable characters on "Huff" are the less predictable ones. Huff's friend Russell (Oliver Platt) is an insane buffoon of a lawyer who drinks, does drugs, becomes enraged or wallows in self-pity -- or all of the above, depending on the day. When he finds out that one of his rather nondescript one-night stands, Kelly Knippers (Faith Prince), is going to have his baby, Russell is shocked and slightly appalled, but then, in a wonderful scene where he invites Kelly over one night when he's drunk and lonely, he tells her that whatever she needs, he wants her to have. He invites her to spend the night. She knows he's not attracted to her and he's just being nice, but she still thinks it's sweet of him to offer, and says so.
That's one of the aspects of "Huff" that's really growing on me -- the sweetness between the characters. Russell is a big asshole and something of a pig, a boozer and a skirt-chaser, sure, but he also genuinely loves and appreciates women beyond merely getting his needs gratified. In every scene, he's mesmerized by one woman or another, and he knows how to make each of them feel good about herself -- which isn't bullshit for him, since he seems to know what's special about each one. He's somehow capable of appreciating a wide range of women, from his frumpy baby-mama to a half-crazy, epileptic, wealthy client (a highly entertaining guest spot by Sharon Stone), to Huff's mom, Izzy (Blythe Danner), whom he slept with at the end of the first season.
There are also really nice scenes between Huff's kid, Byrd (Anton Yelchin), and Izzy and Beth and her mom (Swoosie Kurtz), who's dying of cancer. Even Huff takes some time out from whining to tell Beth's mom a dirty joke, which she unexpectedly laughs at hysterically.
The characters on "Huff" are dealing with the big challenges of middle age -- the deaths of their parents, rivalries with friends, difficulties with teenage kids, infidelity -- and they're completely overwhelmed and emotionally drained. Sometimes the mood feels appropriately heavy, other times it slips into a big frothy mess of melodrama, but one thing that I'm really starting to love about the show is its ability to reflect the kinds of compromises that adults have to make in order to keep their lives from falling to pieces. Even when your marriage is flawed and your mom is an alcoholic and your best friend is a lech, the answer is usually not to get divorced, cut off your mom and end your friendship.
After Russell comes to Tijuana to help Huff track down his mentally ill brother, the two end up at a bar, getting drunk and screaming at each other over the fact that Russell slept with Huff's mom. Eventually, they get thrown out of the bar, Huff throws up and apologizes for getting some on Russell's leg, and then asks if Russell wants to go get another beer. That's the resolution to their big fight, basically: They just run out of steam.
A lot of the major conflicts between characters on "Huff" are resolved in similarly strange but familiar ways. Relationships are imperfect, the writers of "Huff" remind us, and life is imperfect. Those moments when you learn to accept things as they are and move on are the moments when you grow up and learn to enjoy your imperfect life.
Ah, yes. In other words, "Huff" could be described as "a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful tale about life, loss and redemption." But that would stuff an otherwise worthwhile TV show into a shiny, cheerful American package, and the show's nuances and complexities save it from being a part of that sweet siren song that so often leads us to disappointment and ruin.
But look, it's not that I want American culture to change. I sort of like the manic cheer of Toyotathons and Orange Juliuses and Australia-themed steakhouses. As long as we can overcome our childhood notions that the high gloss of commercialism and celebrity culture means that our lives should be anything more than big, messy attempts to be happy, we can sip margaritas and hum sugary pop songs with impunity.