Friday, July 18, 2008

In the Dog Days of Summer, the Best I Could Do This Week Was “Run’s House” and “Rock the Reception”

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

How can you tell that I’m ready for the new season to begin? Well, for starters, when I looked at this week’s premieres to see what I could write about, the best I could come up with was two reality programs: the new season of “Run’s House” (MTV, new episodes air Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) and the debut of the new series “Rock the Reception” (TLC, Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern). See what I mean?

“Run’s House” follows Joseph “Run” Simmons, formerly of the seminal rap group Run DMC, now a solo artist and reverend. Run lives in a big house in New Jersey with his wife, Justine, and his six children. Every episode of “Run’s House” ends with Run in bed with Justine, discussing the events of the day, followed by Run in the tub the next morning, writing about his beliefs on his BlackBerry (and narrating in a voice over), each mini-sermon finishing with his mantra, “God is love.”

I fully understand that the previous paragraph probably turned off 80 percent of the readers from ever watching “Run’s House.” And I can’t fully tell you that everything you’re thinking of about the show is wrong. But the show isn’t bad. In general, reality programs about the day-to-day life of stars, especially those who are past their salad days, tend to, to use the scientific term, “suck.” But “Run’s House” is better than the average celebrity reality fiasco.

For starters, unlike the Ali Lohans and Britneys of the world, Run is a genuine artist, the leader of arguably the most important rap act of all time. The fifth season kicked off last night with Run on stage in Nashville with Kid Rock, commanding the stage and kicking the air like he was back in the 1980s. Run is not a one-hit wonder or passing fad, but an important piece of the history of U.S. popular music. As someone of substance, looking at his life takes on a bit more value than watching the shallow pursuits of the faux celebrity of the moment.

It is also interesting to watch a reality program built around a celebrity family that is actually functional. “Run’s House” is the anti-Osbournes, as Run’s brood consists of basically well-adjusted kids, and the family members seem to interact in generally healthy ways. This season’s premiere was built around the family adjusting to all the changes they had experienced in the previous weeks. In addition to Run finishing a tour, his two daughters, Vanessa and Angela, had moved to Los Angeles, on the same day that Run and Justine brought home their new adopted baby daughter, Miley. Meanwhile, Russy, the youngest boy in the house, became overprotective of Miley, leading to Justine having to ask Run to have a talk with him. College student JoJo, the oldest boy, is lonely, missing his sisters, even though he tortures them when they’re home. So Run sends JoJo to Los Angeles to set up video conferencing equipment for the girls since their New York-based business partner has had trouble keeping up with them while they’re across the country.

Or, put another way, the family has to handle the fact that there young son is too happy about the arrival of a baby sister, the oldest son is sad to be separated from his sisters, and everyone is sad that Run is out on tour.

Is a family that gets along interesting? Yes, mostly thanks to Run.

Run has raised some basically decent kids. Sure, they suffer from some of the traits many rich kids seem to exhibit, like apathy and a lack of perspective. When Run offers to send JoJo to Los Angeles, rather than leap for joy that he’s getting a free vacation, he wants to get paid, like a tech worker would, and he wants to fly first class. Once he gets to Los Angeles, he just wants to have fun, waiting until the absolute last second to hook up the video system, causing stress to his sisters.

But it’s nice to see Run hold the line. He won’t let his daughters fritter away their time in Los Angeles, keeping them on track in their business ventures. (The girls had been avoiding their partner’s calls while on the West Coast.) He doesn’t let JoJo push him too far, holding the line on a coach ticket and giving him far less money than JoJo had hoped for. Gossip magazines, Web sites and magazines are filled to capacity with clebutantes running wild (think Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie), so if procrastination and a cavalier attitude toward work is the worst Run’s kids can be accused of, I think he’s done a pretty good job raising them.

And Run himself is an engaging personality. Other than his “God is love” sign-off and off-hand references to things happening because of God’s will, religion is largely absent from “Run’s House.” Rather than come off as a judgmental preacher, Run just seems like a really good guy. He’s funny with his family, does great voice characterizations, and even pulls off an impressive human beat box loop to make a point to Justine.

In a genre that usually features celebrities because of their foibles, “Run’s House” features the Simmons clan because of how normal they are. How is that for a nice change of pace?

“Rock the Reception” is less interesting, but totally harmless. In fact, it’s so fluffy, it flies by quickly, barely scratching the surfaces of its guests. The 30-minute offering follows two couples as they learn a special dance routine for their wedding receptions. The program has a laser-focus, barely straying from its core topic. We see each couple four times: an introductory segment about who they are; the first meetings with the show’s choreography team, Tabitha and Napoleon; the first (maybe only) rehearsal with the choreographers; and the performance at the reception. There is no relationship drama, no problems with relatives and friends, and no mishaps with the catering. With two couples and only 30 minutes to work with, we’re whisked through the four scenes at breakneck speed.

The premiere episode featured one couple that was chosen to tug at your heartstrings: Michael, an Iraq war veteran, and Trycia, who is battling breast cancer. They do a nice job on a funky dance to Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” The couple wanted to do something fun to give their friends and relatives a bit of a break from the sadness of Trycia’s diagnosis. Or, as Tabitha puts it, “The dance lets everyone know they’re survivors.” If you like that kind of mushy, go-for-the-tear-ducts programming, you would enjoy this story line. Especially when both Trycia, who had been a professional dancer, and Michael turn out to be good dancers.

The second couple was less likable, firmly entrenched in the land of “annoying.” Steven, who is 49, is marrying his business partner, Julie, who is 17 years his junior. Steven fancies himself a great dancer, but he looked like Elaine in “Seinfeld” doing her “full body dry heave set to music.” This Palms Springs-based couple, possibly the least funky people ever to step on a dance floor, chose to attack Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” All you have to know about Steven is that before his ceremony, he tells the camera, “I’m more nervous about the dance” than his actual wedding. And as for Julie, who is so clearly trying too hard to be interesting, her sister says to her upon hearing about the dance idea, “You can’t just have a normal wedding, can you?” Other than some sadistic fun at making fun of these idiots, there wasn’t much entertainment to be had in Steven and Julia’s story line.

And as I watched Steven and Julia dance at the end of the episode, all I could think to myself is, “How am I going to make it to the new season?”