Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lifetime and VH1 Offer Sunday Summer Love

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Four new summer shows debuted on Sunday night, and all four are about the search for true love. Two were from Lifetime, no surprise there. The other two? Well, those were courtesy of VH1, the home of D-level celebrities reduced to whoring out their "realities" for a gig. Wait, it gets better. Who are the wise sages taking you through your VH1 lessons on happily ever after? Dr. Phil? Dr. Ruth? No. Not even Dr. J. This is VH1, after all. Your doctors of true love for the next few Sunday nights are none other than Bret Michaels (the lead singer of Poison) and Scott Baio (Chachi on "Happy Days").

In the opening segment of "Rock of Love With Bret Michaels," the "Talk Dirty to Me" singer explains his philosophy on love: There are a lot of women you want to be friends with, and a lot of women you want to sleep with, but if you can find one who is both, "that is the rock of love." Putting aside the math problems with his deep declaration (if each group is large, presumably, the cross-section would be significant, but I’m definitely over-thinking this), I immediately noted to myself, "And where does one go to find this elusive soul mate? Why, a basic cable reality dating show, of course." VH1 has provided 25 women for Michaels to choose from. He is confident one of them will be his true love. He said it on TV, so it must be true.

Michaels's arrival at the posh rental house for the women who are vying to be the next Mrs. "Every Rose Has a Thorn" sums up the nasty tone of this rock and roll spin on "The Bachelor." Michaels leaves his head of security, Big John, with the "ladies," who are a mass of fake boobs (we learn later in the episode that all but two have implants), dyed hair, facial piercings, and desperation, and the mountain of a man immediately picks five of them and informs them they don't cut the mustard and are going home. One, named Tiffany insists on staying, declaring that she is not leaving without "her man." (Yes, her name is Tiffany, and it should come as no surprise that the gaggle of women includes a Lacey, a Tawny, a Raven, a Rodeo, and two Brandis, both with an "i.") In what seemed to be a poorly scripted, planned-out "twist," Tiffany talks Big John into letting her back into the house, much to the chagrin of one of the Brandis. Another jilted girl complained that she was brought out to Los Angeles from Chicago just to be humiliated. I've got news for her -- all 25 contestants were brought there to be humiliated, and she should be grateful her humiliation was quick and now it's over.

Plus, I couldn't help thinking to myself, "Nice, Michaels left the scene while his muscle did the dirty work. Now all doubt is removed. He is going to hell."

The girls, some of them in the neighborhood of 20 years Michaels's junior, talk about how he's the hottest rock star and how much they want to sleep with him (they use far more graphic verbs, usually requiring VH1 to insert a bleep). Their reactions were entirely appropriate, if it was, you know, 1990. In 2007, not so much. It seems apparent that half the girls didn’t even know who Michaels was the day before they applied for the show. It occurred to me that nothing is real about this reality show, even by reality show standards.

If watching incredibly vacant young women discuss their implants at length as if the issue was as important as global warming (including one of them with a baby doll voice giddily cooing that she is happy her parents bought her fake breasts for her last birthday), then "Rock of Love" is the show for you! But, for those of you who feel like you need a shower after reading the last few paragraphs, you may want to steer clear.

Meanwhile, over in Scott Baio's world, the title pretty much sums up the premise of the show: "Scott Baio is 45 and Single." Baio seems to fancy himself as the Frank Sinatra of his dork brat pack, which is made up of two old friends and a fellow child star, Jason Hervey (Wayne on "The Wonder Years"). The four men golf, smoke cigars, and discuss women, which often involves discussion of Baio's best friend, Johnny V., only getting girls because of Baio. It's bad enough when you have to rely on Scott Baio's cast-offs in 2007. But, you've really hit bottom when you agree to broadcast that fact on national television.

The show's premise is that Baio has been unable to commit to his past girlfriends, so, to avoid making the same mistake with his current girlfriend, Renee (who seems fairly normal until it hits you that she wants to be in a serious relationship with Scott Baio), he hires a life coach, Doc Ali, to help him figure out why he is a commitment-phobe. The TV-friendly prescription Doc Ali (or Dark Alley, as Baio calls her) imposes on Baio is that he has to spend two months away from Renee, refrain from having sex with anyone, and go back and talk to his ex-girlfriends to figure out what he did wrong.

In the first episode, the wreck-on-the-side-of-the-freeway moment of his journey is an unbelievably awkward meal with Erin Moran, his "Happy Days" co-star. We learn during a conversation with Doc Ali before their meeting that Baio lost his virginity with Moran when they were teenagers. Exploring why a 45-year-old man broke up with a fellow cast member when he was 15 doesn't seem to be an extremely productive therapeutic course of action, but it sure does make for some prurient television thrills!

On its face, Baio's quest, spending two months trying to figure out how he can commit to a woman he says he loves, is far more relatable and admirable than Michaels's let's-party-'til-we-puke-in-a-swanky-house-while-inducing-cat-fights mission to find a woman. Of course, it then hits you that Baio, too, has decided to embark on his journey under the scrutiny of reality television cameras, which cheapens the integrity of his plan. Yes, I know, I used the word "integrity" while talking about a reality television show starring a past-it actor. My apologies. But, I have company. In the premiere episode of "Scott Baio is 45 and Single," Baio's agent seems appalled at the thought of his client whoring himself out for VH1, even going so far as to pull him into a conference room for a "private" meeting (the cameras peer through the glass, and he had to know that Baio would be wearing a microphone) and tell him it's not too late to call the whole thing off.

I hate to admit it, but I'm kind of glad Baio decided to soldier on. He's not always likable (you can understand not wanting to be pigeon-holed as Chachi, but his lack of appreciation for what the role brought him and his disdain for his fans are pretty off-putting). And Johnny and Baio make equal fools of themselves when they run into actor Clint Howard (brother of Ron, the film director who was also a former "Happy Days" cast-mate of Baio's). Baio bitches about Ron not casting him in any of his films, while Johnny didn't even register Clint's existence until he was told that he was Ron's brother.

And yet, there is something interesting about following someone like Baio, a once-famous guy who has mostly slipped into anonymity while still retaining some last remnants of his notoriety, as he goes through his kind of normal life (albeit a leisurely one, as he doesn't seem to have a whole lot of responsibilities). While he clearly has relationship issues, he's not a train-wreck of the Britney-Kevin/Jessica-Nick variety. I guess that's why it doesn't feel as wrong to watch some of Baio's struggles, like when he attends an autograph signing (Moran convinced him to do it), talks on the phone with Henry Winkler (who sounded surprised to hear from him), and listens to his agent tell him about how he has a chance at a role in a Hallmark movie with a gusto that makes you wonder if you misheard him and Baio is really up for a part in Scorcese's next film. I found myself, against my better nature, rooting for Baio to pull himself together, grow up, and make a commitment to Renee. The fact that I doubt he is capable of this growth made it all the more engaging.

The bottom line, though, is that watching "Rock of Love With Bret Michaels" made me feel like I was doing something wrong, while watching "Scott Baio is 45 and Single" just made me happy I wasn't as emotionally stunted as Scott Baio. And isn't that what celebrity reality television is for? To make you feel like the famous people are no better than you are?

If reality television is not your bag, your Sunday night "search for true love" options lie in the hands of the good folks at Lifetime, who debuted two shows with remarkably similar premises and styles. Indie film stalwart Lili Taylor, who's previous foray into television was in the decidedly more serious work of "Six Feet Under," is the star of "State of Mind," playing a therapist who has to address the demons in her own life when she catches her husband having sex with their marriage counselor. The discovery leads her to question if her husband was her true love, and what the nature of love is, in general. We watch as she berates a couple from hell during a session, telling them, "If I had to live with either one of you, I'd cut my throat." I doubt the authorities would approve of that kind of therapy, but the tough love works. After a lot more speeches by Taylor's doc and soul-bearing by the man and woman, the couple leaves hand-in-hand. Horrified, but hand-in-hand.

Those thinking of giving "State of Mind" a chance on the idea that Taylor's presence in the show demonstrates that it is a step above the soapy level of other Lifetime offerings are more apt to find that her being on the program actually demonstrates that even actresses that are critical darlings have to pay the bills. But, there is no doubt that Taylor's work, while maybe too good for the show, does provide the show with a quality other soaps may lack.

Lifetime's other Sunday night offering, "Side Order of Life," is also an estrogen-friendly look at the nature of true love, with Marisa Coughlin (late of "Boston Legal") as the woman examining her life and Jason Priestly as the man not fulfilling her needs. Coughlin plays Jenny, a photographer for a weekly magazine that seems like a classier version of "People," who is engaged to a wealthy businessman (Priestly) that you've seen in every romantic comedy or drama where the guy is nice enough but not of sufficient depth to deserve the love of the leading woman. When Jenny's best friend informs her over lunch that her cancer has returned and the prognosis is not very good, Jenny reassesses her life, writing her first piece for the magazine (the improbable story of a woman with three husbands and a lover) and postponing her impending wedding.

Both "State" and "Side" feature leading women who experience "Ally McBeal"-style flights of fancy, with Taylor's character's visions running a bit darker, while Coughlin's photographer experiences more "Twilight Zone"-light events (things in photos that aren't really there, mysteriously crossed phone lines, etc.). Both shows feature characters giving wholly false-sounding, overly dramatic, not particularly insightful long speeches (especially the cancer-stricken friend in "Side" and a child psychologist played by Scottish actor Derek Riddel in a creepy pedophile/abuse subplot in "State"). And, neither show seems to care too much about the plausibility of its characters' activities (e.g. Coughlin's photographer still shoots on film and uses no lights when shooting her subjects).

But, you don't go to Lifetime on Sunday nights for dark, gritty, real stories. You go for soapy fluff. Taking that into account, both "State" and "Side" deliver. They feature solid acting, decent plot lines (again, except for the pedophilia/abuse arc, which felt out of place), and the occasional clever line. Both shows will keep your attention, even if no Emmys will be forthcoming for these easy-to-swallow confections. "Side" runs more to the frothy, "State" to the melodramatic, but both get the job done, filling their roles as Sunday night, back-to-work entertainment, mostly for women.

Best of all, nobody in "State" or "Side" talks about how much they like their (or anybody else's) breasts, nor do they compare them to Gummi Bears. At least not in the first episodes. I guess anything is possible when you're searching for true love.