Thursday, May 1, 2008

Reality Shows “Celebracadabra” and “The Paper” May Sound Like Parodies, But They Really Exist

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

Reality shows have become so formulaic, the knock-offs are starting to look and sound like parodies. In the past week or two, when I saw promos for “Celebracadabra” (C-list celebrities try and be magicians, VH1, new episodes air Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern) and “The Paper” (the intrigue at a high school newspaper, MTV, new episodes air Mondays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern), I honestly thought for a second that they might be jokes.

Couldn’t you picture Amy Poehler, as Hillary Clinton, going to pull a rabbit out of a hat but instead ending up with lingerie from one of Bill’s dalliances? What about Kristin Wiig as one of the vacuous bimbos on “The Hills,” telling her friends that she is going to work on her old high school’s newspaper so she could “learn about news and stuff”? Once I figured out for sure that these were actually two new reality programs, I had to watch them to see if they are as bad as they sound.

“Celebracadabra” is about as derivative and steeped in the (not very) time-worn traditions of celebrity contest shows as you’ll ever see. Has-been and never-were celebrities grasping for another 15 minutes of fame? Check. You can watch comic Ant, 1980s heart-throb actor C. Thomas Howell, Kid (Chris Reid) from rap duo Kid ‘n Play, former “Talk Soup” host Hal Sparks, comic-actress Lisa Ann Walter (don’t worry, I had no idea who she was, either), singer and professional celebrity offspring Carnie Wilson, and Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt try to win $100,000 that they probably need more than they would like us to know. A competition in which the faux celebs have to learn a new skill? Check. Magic fills in the space occupied by dancing and ice skating in similar, but higher-rated, network programs. An elimination element? Check. After the faux celebs do their magic tricks, the three magician judges, host Jonathan Levit, magic teacher Jeff Magnus McBride and illusionist Franz Harary, eliminate a contestant. Cheesy gimmick for elimination? Check. The contestant voted off the island, er, show, has his or her magic wand snapped in half, and he or she has to sit in a chair, get covered by a tarp and literally disappear. Characters placed into roles, and drama manufactured? Check. Ant is cast as the bitchy troublemaker. He tries to build alliances, first with Wilson, and then after she rejects him, with Walter and Wyatt. Ant proceeds to harass Wilson while she performs in an effort to get her eliminated.

So is “Celebracadabra” as awful as it sounds? No, actually. Look, there is a lot not to like here: Wilson’s personality, overexposed on talk shows and reality programs, grates. She can really use a sabbatical from the spotlight (and so can we, as viewers). It’s hard to look at Howell, who appears unwell, gaunt and dazed (and possibly on the wrong VH1 show, since he may be better suited for “Celebrity Rehab”). Ant is an acquired taste, one I have yet to acquire. Wyatt is pretty to look at, but not very interesting to listen to. Sparks is actually kind of funny, but his over-the-top hipster look, with Melrose Avenue clothes, long hair and a soul patch, seems so calculated, it’s ridiculous and saps any interest I might have in his comedy. (You won’t recognize him from “Talk Soup” until he speaks.) Walters is fine, and Reid is the best thing on the show. He comes off as smart and funny, begging the question of why he is doing reality television.

So if it’s such a train wreck, why did I say it’s not so bad? To quote the rock band the Cars, “Oh oh, it’s magic.” I have never been a fan of magic shows or magicians, but the tricks on “Celebracadabra” entertained me. I can only imagine how much fun a magic aficionado would have watching the illusions on the show, many of which are pretty elaborate. Each of the contestants gets paired up with a real, working magician to coach them, which works out quite well, since we get to see the teachers demonstrate tricks, before later watching the faux celebs try their hands at them.

The debut episode was dedicated to street magic, so the seven contestants hit two locations in Los Angeles to do their newly learned routines for the general public. Five of them did a great job. Wyatt pulled off an amazing trick, identifying someone’s card by throwing the deck in the air, breaking a beer bottle, and then spearing the right card with the jagged edge of the bottle. Sparks also wowed his crowd, producing a mouse from a torn up newspaper chain. I liked Walter’s showmanship in executing a nifty illusion, getting a muscle-bound guy to rip open her fishnet stockings, revealing the card he had selected lying flat against her thigh. I also liked Reid’s ability to make a ring disappear, and then reappear tied to his shoelace. As the judges later pointed out, while the trick was solid, Reid’s performance for the audience was top-notch. Ant’s trick was odd, reassembling a one-dollar bill that he tore into four pieces after a guy had signed it, but he completed it successfully. Only Howell and Wilson crashed and burned on their first attempts, looking extremely uncomfortable in the process. Howell failed to get a crumpled dollar to levitate over his hand, and Wilson caused the wrong card to stick to a window when she threw the deck at it. Both were later able to get things right on their second attempts in front of different crowds.

In the end, there is a lot more magic than anything else on “Celebracadabra,” which is good, since it allows the show to rise above the level of a bad knock-off. If you like magic, it’s worth a watch. Maybe just turn the sound down when Ant talks to the camera.

“The Paper,” on the other hand, is every bit as disastrous as it sounds. After finding success with the rich boys and girls of “Laguna Beach” and its spin-off, “The Hills,” MTV decided to go across the country and try the formula in a different setting. This time, the cameras follow the students of Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla., as they work on the school’s student newspaper. “Laguna Beach” presented a kind of iconic world of wealthy, pretty kids of an idyllic, upscale, California beachfront town that would inspire teens around the country to watch and wonder what it would be like to live there. I can’t imagine anyone would look at “The Paper” and feel the same way.

The Cypress Bay crowd, suburban upper-middle-class teens who are way nerdier than their West Coast counterparts, live in McMansions and complain about the politics of their school newspaper. This is not glamorous stuff, and the average life of the average American high schooler is probably as interesting, if not more, than the existences waded through by the kids in “The Paper.”

The center of the show is Amanda, an awkward, odd-dressing girl with a new nose job, who beats out her old friend Alex, a skinny, nasal-voiced guy, to be editor in chief of the newspaper. Alex, feeling like he deserved the top spot, is stuck with the second-in-command position of managing editor. This is MTV, so you would be completely correct in expecting some major plotting, subterfuge and intrigue on Alex’s part, leading to instances of sabotage, conspiracy and attempted coups. At least through the first couple of episodes, you would be sorely disappointed. Alex is more Barney Fife than Iago. He whines to his mother and friends on the paper that he should be editor in chief, but equally moans that he wants to stay buddies with Amanda.

Not that Alex is a loyal ally. He tells Amanda that he supports her, but when he’s with his friends, he is quick to make fun of her while once again saying he should be in charge. He manages to be neither an interesting schemer nor a brave guy standing up for his affection for an unpopular girl. He’s just weak. If he had some balls and tried to bring Amanda down, at least it would make for some engaging drama. Instead, he just comes off as two-faced and ineffectual.

Then again, it’s not like you can like Amanda very much, and, even worse, she’s not interesting. The two words that perfectly sum up Amanda are delusional and pathetic. She is reviled by the rest of the editors, and she oversees a wreck of a first staff meeting, during which nobody listens to her, and the seniors all but openly make fun of her. Her reaction? She thinks the meeting went great. She then decides it would be a good idea to throw an ice cream social as a team-building exercise. People attend the party out of obligation, but they couldn’t have expressed their unhappiness at being there any more clearly if they had worn T-shirts reading: “This Sucks.” Not surprisingly, the guests look uncomfortable and unhappy before clearing out early. Amanda’s response to this turn of events? She says the party was “a total success,” leading her to declare, “I’m the luckiest editor in chief in the world.” Amanda’s role model must be Nero: She eats ice cream while her newspaper career burns.

Delusional would be easier to handle if Amanda wasn’t also a bit of an egomaniac. While gearing up for the big staff meeting, she says, “I hope it goes well, because if it doesn’t, I’ll have to think that bad things happen to good people.” Amanda embodies one of the most annoying types of people you will meet: Someone who isn’t even half as fabulous as she thinks she is.

We’re told Amanda was smitten with Alex in third grade, and he had a thing for her in ninth grade. They should just get together now, since the audience certainly won’t have a crush on either one of them. Alex and Amanda, as uninteresting as they are, deserve each other.

Don’t look to the group of newspaper staffers for someone to root for. It’s hard to enjoy news editor Giana’s hatred of Amanda. Thin, pretty and smart, Giana violates the basic principle of comedy that people with power should never pick in on people with less power. I guess some people will enjoy the sadistic thrill of listening to Giana slam Amanda, but I found it off-putting. And it’s not even like Giana is clever about it. She’s like a cooler version of Alex, complaining all the time about Amanda but not doing anything about it. Advertising manager Adam is like an Ant in training, out-bitching any of his fellow staffers. But you can’t help thinking that someone that aggressive should have more clever things to say about Amanda. He’s not funny, just loud. The rest of the staff is pretty much nondescript.

I have a headline for “The Paper”: “Boring Students Staff High School Newspaper, and America Doesn’t Care.” Too bad “The Paper” wasn’t actually a “Saturday Night Live” parody of “Laguna Beach.” That might have actually been entertaining.