Mike Wallace: A Remembrance
April 8, 2012 10:26 PM
By Ronnie Gill
Back in 1978, in my early days of reporting, I was assigned a story about the 10th anniversary of 60 Minutes. CBS' revolutionary newsmagazine, the first of its kind, was then anchored by Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Dan Rather. I interviewed them, as well as the show's executive producer, Don Hewitt.
I had watched 60 Minutes as long as it had been on the air and knew the reporters' styles well, so it was with some trepidation that this young reporter sat in Mike Wallace's Manhattan office waiting for our time together to begin. He was known as the show's no-nonsense pit bull, in his own words, wearing the black hat to his first 60 Minutes partner Harry Reasoner's (and later Morley Safer's) white hat. Dan Rather, he said, walked a line somewhere in between.
Wallace was late that day, tied up in a screening and meeting with the show's legal team over an episode scheduled to air that Sunday about the Ford Pinto and the tendency of the vehicle's gas tank to explode when involved in a rear-end collision.
His assistant wasn't sure when, or if, Wallace would be available, or how much time we'd have together. (Indeed, the interview was interrupted a number of times). Adding to my anxiety was my then husband's irritation that I was running late and would not be able to meet him at Penn Station to catch the train we planned to take home that evening. When Wallace finally arrived, he was cordial and gracious and apologized for being detained. I don't remember the details, but he somehow learned that my husband was perturbed, and sensing that I was upset, encouraged me to relax, assuring me that things would be fine.
This reporter will never forget that kindness or how generous Wallace was with his time, in spite of his pressing schedule, telling me "if you don't get through, stick around 'til later so you get it properly done."
Hearing of Wallace's death today saddened me, and took me back in time 34 years to when we spoke. For the first time since then, I re-listened to our interview.
Wallace, 60 at the time, told me that he had started working when he was 22, and in his 38 years in the business, the two jobs he liked best were the original Nightbeat (1956-57; see video below) and 60 Minutes. His wish was to keep working on the show, perhaps reducing his workload from 40 stories a year to 30, until he was 65, which at the time was CBS' mandatory retirement age. He ultimately stayed with the program through 2006, retiring at the age of 88.
Though his reporter persona was usually tough and tenacious, Wallace was also charming and forthcoming. It was a side of him the public rarely got to see, but which peeked through when he interviewed people he admired and enjoyed, such as Beverly Sills. His breed of reporting is rare today, and he will be missed.
'Buried Treasure' - or Just More TV Junk?
August 25, 2011 9:53 PM
By Ronnie Gill
Wow! When I first heard about Fox's new Buried Treasure (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET), I thought: I'm going to love this show. It's Antiques Roadshow coming to houses like mine and justifying all those years of going to garage, church and yard sales. It's about everyday people picking up something for a dollar or a dime that is going to make them -- well, a millionaire.
Um, not quite.
Buried Treasure stars Leigh and Leslie Keno of PBS fame. The Keno brothers grew up surrounded by antiques -- their parents were both dealers -- and, according to them, have been fascinated by old objects since childhood. If you watch Roadshow, you will no doubt recognize them. They're those over-enthusiastic blond furniture appraisers who often get more excited about a "find" than its owner.
But rather than the mundane folks that people Roadshow, or even History Channel's Pawn Stars, the producers of Buried Treasure seem intent on upping the drama, and that means finding individuals who are sometimes as unusual and quirky as the objects they possess. The result? Something akin to a mashup of Roadshow and A&E's Hoarders.
The premiere opened with a mother and daughter from well-to-do Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. Mom Liz Doering is living off the fumes of what daughter Lily describes, with some resentment, as "a lot of financial stability" that was squandered. Liz is also a hoarder who seems oblivious that the interior of her otherwise lovely home is a horror, piled high with her "stuff." She really loves her stuff and doesn't want to part with it. It is clear she could use professional counseling.
Her adult daughter wants the Kenos, whom she describes as "the rock stars of the antiques world," to find money in the mess that surrounds her mother. Lily, who has a 6-year-old daughter, complains that she buys the food and pays the bills and that "The answer to all our problems could be hiding under a sack of papers." Though shedding tears about how she wants to help Liz, Lily comes off as rather uncaring and coarse. Would a caring daughter expose her mother like this to her neighbors and community, not to mention the rest of the viewing world?
The Kenos "discover" five objects to take back to Manhattan to investigate further. Have they found Buried Treasure? We'll have to wait until the end of the show for the big reveal. It's a now commonplace TV reality technique that builds annoyance rather than suspense. (Note to the producers: People interested in a show about found objects don't need to be strung along to keep watching. Take a hint from Roadshow. Viewers get immediate gratification and are still watching after 14 years.)
Ultimately, all the items collected by the Kenos are valuable, including an ancient bronze Minoan bowl with a pre-auction value of $40,000 to $60,000. As the worth of each piece is announced, Lily jumps around and excitedly yells (bleeped) expletives, while Liz submissively agrees to let her treasures be sold. It is all rather sad to watch. I hated Lily and pitied Liz.
Next comes Manhattan comic book artist Graig Weich and his wife, Liga. Graig is also a collector of comics, and the couple's cramped, claustrophobic one-bedroom apartment is overrun by that collection. Graig thinks it might be time to sell some of his stuff and move forward with his life. But like a lot of collectors, he has trouble letting go. Two normally highly valued comics he brings to the Keno's comic book experts turn out to be damaged. Graig decides not to sell his restored Incredible Hulk No. 1 (mint: $20,000) for $2,200, but parts with a repaired comic featuring the first appearance of Spider-Man (mint: $200,000) for $5,400. He is conflicted over an offer of $58,000 for a 1941 Superman animation cel by Max Fleischer.
When his wife tells him to keep it because she knows he'll regret selling it, he is so touched by her gesture he decides he now wants to part with it. Ultimately he leaves the decision to Liga, who convinces him to keep it. True love conquers all, apparently, including practicality. The collector in me understands how hard it is to sell off pieces, but the objective observer in me found it hard to understand why they wouldn't trade the windfall for better living conditions.
Finally, we return to Long Island, where Greenport winemaker Leslie Howard believes he might have inherited a valuable 17th century violin, left to him when his dad perished in a sailing accident when Howard was 12. The Kenos' experts, however, determine it is an early 20th century reproduction worth $300.
Along with the fabricated drama (including appraiser valuations getting cut at "the pre-auction value is" point before a commercial, a technique from HGTV's If Walls Could Talk), we wish the producers of Buried Treasure would dump the current voiceover announcer who explains what items are and their worth. We'd much prefer the Kenos do that in standup segments or do their own voiceovers.
Though I won't give up on the show yet, previews of coming episodes promise more hoarders, which makes me wary. Then again, it appears that one woman will get news that she owns something worth a million dollars.
And let's not forget that promo at the end of the show soliciting viewers to apply to have the Kenos examine a special item they might possess. There must be something in my attic . . .
You Gotta Hear 'The Voice'!
May 3, 2011 11:50 AM
By Ronnie Gill
As American Idol dwindles down to its final five finalists, it seems to lose momentum week by week. Gone is the promise that the Top 13 (well, at least the Top 11) contestants held. I am bewildered, and sometimes even stunned, by whom my fellow Americans are choosing as the most talented or even intriguing singers this season. Pedestrian 16-year-old country artist Lauren Alaina has more style than picture-perfect and perfect-pitched balladeer Pia Toscano? More talent than quirky and unpredictable Casey Abrams? Really, America? REALLY?
Fortunately, as my interest wanes in that chestnut, a new show debuted last week that looks as if it might present Idol's first real competition in the vocal talent genre. If you missed the premiere of NBC's The Voice, check it out this Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET. I consider it a return to must-see TV on NBC, and many others agree. The 12 million viewers who tuned to its first outing made it the highest-rated premiere of the season. Plus, it racked up another 6 million viewers for an encore of the premiere Wednesday night (airing partially against Idol). Though it remains to be seen whether the later rounds of the show, in which the public gets to vote, will prove that America still doesn't have a clue, right now The Voice is fresh and exciting.
The point of The Voice is to find great singers based, at least initially, on their vocal talent -- not their appearance, personality or stage presence -- and then to mentor them into superstars. To that end, the show has four coaches -- singers Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. Note that all four are major current talents, unlike Idol's judges, who are so 5 minutes (or 15 years) ago.
Each coach will work with eight singers whom they select during the "blind auditions" round. In this first phase of the show, the coaches face away from the singers as they perform. If they hear a voice they like -- hence the name of the show -- they can buzz in to claim the singer for their team. If none of the coaches buzz in, the singer is eliminated. However, if more than one coach buzzes in, the power reverts to the auditioner, who can select which coach he or she prefers to work with -- but not before the coaches make appeals for why they should be picked.
We loved watching strategist Levine, who, when he was considering selecting someone, watched the other coaches' hands. If they made a move for the buzzer, Levine made sure to buzz in simultaneously. This tactic was effective in currying favor with the singers, who tended to be partial to the first coach (or two) who buzzed in to win them. Levine also relied on cute begging ploys when he had to fight to win a singer.
The Voice skips Idol's weeks of torturous shows traveling the country to find worthy singers by having its casting team work with the music industry to locate great voices. Thus, you'll see everything from neophyte 16-year-olds to seasoned contestants such as Idol Season 2 semi-finalist Frenchie Davis. (Davis was disqualified from Idol after topless pictures of her showed up online. If you missed the premiere of The Voice, she was selected by Aguilera.) There was even a folk duo.
After each mentor has selected a team of eight, the show's second phase, the "battle" stage, begins. For this round, each coach has advisers to help whittle their teams down to their best four singers. Aguilera will team up with singer-songwriter Sia, Levine with Maroon 5 music director Blackstone, Green with singer Monica, and Shelton with veteran country artist Reba McEntire. The advisers will help the coaches develop and bring out the best in their singers by helping them select songs that suit their vocal styles, providing advice on performances, and sharing secrets of their own success. To pare the team by half, the coaches pit their artists against each other in duets before a studio audience. After the face-off, the coach decides which singer will advance.
The final part of the competition is the "performance" stage. In this semi-final phase, the top contestants from each team compete against each other in live broadcasts, and viewers vote to save one talent on each team, leaving the coach to decide whom they want to save and who will not move on. In the finals, each coach will have one artist left. Viewers decide who will be named The Voice to receive a recording contract and $100,000.
So far, each coach has picked three singers. It's hard to determine which coach, if any, has picked most wisely, since I would have selected one contestant each from Levine's, Green's and Shelton's teams. I wasn't that impressed with the singers Aguilera chose. You can watch the premiere here. If you find you love the performances, full-length studio versions are available on iTunes.
And let me know if you like the show as much as I do.
Casey Has NOT Struck Out - or How 'American Idol' Got Its Groove Back
March 27, 2011 4:51 PM
By Ronnie Gill
If this season's American Idol is turning into a circus, then we have to assume that Nigel Lythgoe is its ringmaster.
It is easy to say, without hyperbole, that Thursday night's results show was the most bizarrely fascinating in Idol's 10-season history. A foreteller of the evening's events was executive producer and showrunner Nigel Lythgoe's late-morning tweet, "#Spoiler Alert: Shocking #AmericanIdol news tonight!!!"
That evening's elimination round was a pivotal one. It would determine who would make Idol's summer tour. If you can't win the competition, this is the second-best prize. It means a nice chunk of income for the performers as well as priceless exposure, which can result in a recording contract.
Speculation ran rampant among fans who saw or heard of the Twitter message. Was it a stunt? Many took it to mean that one of the competition's front-runners was about to land in the Bottom 3 or even be eliminated.
Some, including myself, believed it was related to Casey Abrams, a contestant who is afflicted with ulcerative colitis. Abrams, a possible favorite of Lythgoe whom he has tweeted about, had been hospitalized at least twice within the month, needing transfusions because of internal bleeding. Was he sick again? Was he going to bow out? Would they eliminate him because they felt he wasn't well enough to go on tour?
As it turned out, Abrams received the least amount of votes after singing "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" on Wednesday's Motown-themed performance show. But that was only the beginning of the capper of an already squirrelly show.
Along with the expected elements of the results show -- the Ford music video, film clips of Marc Anthony mentoring the contestants, and performances by Sugarland and Jennifer Hudson, whom Ryan Seacrest introduced as "our only Idol winner with an Oscar" (er, Ryan, she actually came in seventh in Season 3) -- there were unannounced appearances by Stevie Wonder, who sang "Happy Birthday" to Steven Tyler, and Hulk Hogan, who first assisted Seacrest in delivering voting results to Paul McDonald and James Durbin, and then faux sucker-punched Seacrest in the face, causing him to faux stumble headfirst into the audience.
At show's end, Abrams was left standing onstage, ready to "sing for his life." He faced either winning the judges' one-time-a-season save or being eliminated. For his song, he chose the ironically titled "I Don't Need No Doctor" (it was revealed by TMZ after the fact that Abrams had received yet another transfusion that very morning).
About 20 seconds into his performance, Seacrest ran onto the stage frantically waving his arms and stopped the music. Judge Randy Jackson told Abrams, "We know who you are, Casey. We don't need you to sing anymore, do we, Steven?" Tyler said, "Yeah, this is crazy wrong. We made a decision here to keep you on." Seacrest screamed, "They're using the one save for Casey Abrams!" as the audience went wild. An emotionally overcome and ashen Abrams first looked as if he was going to vomit, then with a hand to his chest looked like he was having a heart attack. Fox had to bleep him repeatedly saying "Oh, my f------ god."
He then approached the judges saying, "Are you kidding? Are you kidding? . . . Why did you do this for me? . . . I can't believe it, oh my god, I can't believe it, I can't believe it." With a Roman-arena feel, the crowd began to chant, "CASEY! CASEY! CASEY!" as Abrams went to hug Seacrest and literally collapsed -- sliding down Seacrest's legs -- to the floor. He sat for a second, stood, paced, then dashed offstage into the audience to hug his mother. Returning to the stage, he could barely speak.
Seacrest ended the show with bad and good news: Two contestants will be eliminated in the next results show, but "it had been predetermined, should something like this occur, all 11 will go out on tour!" Huge group hug, cue closing credits.
(TMZ reported that Abrams "was so overwrought with emotion after the show, he began hyperventilating and then fell to the floor in the hallway" and that "staffers helped Casey up and put him in a chair so he could calm down.")
If that show spelled drama with a capital D, then we give credit to Lythgoe for being a master at how to draw an audience back to an aging diva. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Thursday's show averaged a 6.2 rating in the highly desirable 18-49 demographic, with 22.4 million viewers overall. That was a 9 percent increase in the age demographic week-to-week and a 6 percent increase in total viewers. The show's ratings spiked in the last half-hour, as the audience swelled to see who got booted, growing 21 percent for the age demographic and 17 percent in overall viewers.
Although Idol is still the top-rated TV series in the United States, it loses some of its numbers each year. Perhaps smelling blood, NBC is aggressively advertising its new singing competition The Voice, launching April 26 with host Carson Daly and big-name "mentors" Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine (Maroon 5), Cee Lo Green (Forget You) and Blake Shelton. In the fall, executive producer Simon Cowell transports The X Factor, the British show that introduced Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke and Olly Murs, among others, via Fox to our shores. The former Idol judge, as well as renowned music producer L.A. Reid and two others to be announced soon, will serve as that show's judges. (Supposedly former Idol judge and Cowell foil Paula Abdul is still in the running.)
So it is more important than ever for American Idol to return to its A-game, and Lythgoe appears to be the person most suited to take it there. An original executive producer of Idol, Lythgoe returned for the show's 10th season after a two-year absence ostensibly to concentrate on his first and true love -- dance. He is executive producer and head judge on Fox's So You Think You Can Dance. But according to the Los Angeles Times, "sources at the time [of Lythgoe's leaving Idol] said that friction with Cowell behind the scenes was the primary reason for his departure."
In his absence, Idol floundered. The remaining executive producers added a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, for Season 8, a move Lythgoe disliked. He told the New York Post, "I don't like fourth judges. I think once you've been told 'You suck,' you don't need to be told another three times."
At the end of that season, the show lost Paula Abdul, when she failed to reach terms on a new contract. At the time, Lythgoe told Hollywood Outbreak, "I'm very sad. I think Paula is an integral part of American Idol . . . and when the history books are written, Randy, Paula and Simon are the historic trio of judges. . . . She for me is the heart of American Idol. She recognized that these kids were performing their best, and, you know, when other people who hadn't been performers, like Simon, would cut their legs from underneath them, she was there to put them back together and pick them up and dust them off. And I do hope whoever replaces Paula has the ability to understand these kids and, you know, praise them. I don't mind criticizing them, as long as you rebuild them."
Paula was replaced by Ellen DeGeneres, a choice that seemingly pleased Lythgoe. After all, she had been a guest judge on SYTYCD the previous fall. He spoke glowingly of her hire, telling Entertainment Weekly, "Ellen will be that judge who comes at it from a fan perspective. She loves music and she will be able to speak about what people will like and what would sound good on the radio. And she's funny. And I also think she is strong enough to keep Simon in his place, which I am always worried about."
Lythgoe's faith in DeGeneres' strength might have been misplaced. Or was there something else at play? When she resigned at the end of Season 9, a year before her contract expired, she claimed it wasn't a good fit. Lythgoe blamed Cowell, telling Deadline.com, "I think there's a place for Ellen DeGeneres on American Idol. And that is being the voice of the people. She wasn't given a fair opportunity to serve that function. Ellen was constantly apologizing and overwhelmed, I think, by Simon."
Perhaps that's a bit disingenuous on Lythgoe's part. After all, DeGeneres announced her resignation on July 29, 2010. Cowell had already left the show, as planned, in May, at the end of the Season 9. And three days prior to DeGeneres' resignation, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lythgoe was in negotiations to return to the show. Shouldn't that have been bliss for both DeGeneres and Lythgoe? Perhaps not.
In April, referring to Cowell's imminent departure, Lythgoe told Zap2it.com, that he thought the show should do a major overhaul of the judges table. "I would replace the entire judging panel. I don't think it really works replacing one person. They don't have a great deal of chemistry at the moment. Ryan and Simon have fallen out. It's uncomfortable to watch. Ellen hasn't worked out as well as we would have hoped." Hmmm.
Lythgoe also told the website that he favored returning to a three-judge panel. His preferences? Two new names and one old name -- but not Randy Jackson's. His picks? "Elton John, Usher and Paula Abdul," Lythgoe said.
In June, he told the Canadian Press, "It's never been my opinion that four judges work on that program because it should be about the talent. The team took their eye off the ball a little bit and was more worried about the judges and what was happening with them than it was regarding the talent last year. It became about Kara joining and making the fourth judge, Paula leaving, Ellen joining, and Simon leaving, and much more about them and concentrating on that than on the talent that they were finding."
It appears that Lythgoe had a lot to say about how he would revamp the faltering series -- and his former colleagues decided to take him up on it. Variety said, "Lythgoe's hire was made by 19 Entertainment owner CKX to serve as 19's and exec producer Simon Fuller's day-to-day eyes and ears on the show. 19 was said to be concerned that it didn't have a dedicated EP on the show -- hence the return of longtime Fuller collaborator Lythgoe."
Two Lythgoe-less Idol seasons resulted in possibly the dullest groups of contestants ever. Their winners, Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze, have the dubious distinction of producing the worst-selling premiere albums of anyone who has ever won the Idol title.
Is it just coincidence that Lythgoe's return coincides with some of the best contestants the show has ever found? We think not. There are probably at least three or four in this year's group alone -- James Durbin, Pia Toscano, Scotty McCreery and Casey Abrams -- who could have won the title in almost any other season. On top on that, there are no real stinkers in the entire Top 13. Sure, some of the group is merely mediocre, but mediocre was pretty much the best we got the past two seasons, with rare exceptions (Adam Lambert and Crystal Bowersox come to mind).
We still aren't sure that Lythgoe has found his judging dream team. The mix of Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson leaves a lot to be desired. But he has given us some great singers this season, and for that we're grateful. Now that he's mixing some crazy into the pot, as Tyler might say, we think that Lythgoe is giving us a lot to look forward to.
'Pawn Stars' Is Good Stuff
February 3, 2011 9:40 PM
By Ronnie Gill
Blame it on the economy or conspicuous consumption. Whatever the reason, TV these days is brimming with shows about people buying, selling, appraising or pawning their stuff.
"Stuff" encompasses a lot of territory, from a rusted gas station sign on American Pickers or a pinball machine on Auction Hunters to a half-million-dollar piece of art on Antiques Roadshow or evidence from the Lindbergh baby kidnapping on Pawn Stars. And then there's just plain, everyday used stuff, from old costume jewelry to childhood toys.
People are searching their attics, basements and garages for hidden treasure to turn into cash. Scavengers are searching them (with permission), too, as well as abandoned storage lockers, barns and out buildings on farms or large properties.
In the '90s, shows that appraised items were as rare as discovering a $10,000 chair left in the attic by your home's previous owner. Most people are familiar with PBS's Antiques Roadshow, a staple on the network since 1997. But back in the days when we actively went to garage and estate sales, we watched Personal fX: The Collectibles Show, which began airing live at midday on FX in 1994 and lasted a couple of years.
Today, a whole genre exists. You can take your pick from History's Pawn Stars and American Pickers, A&E's Storage Wars, Discovery's Auction Kings, Spike's Auction Hunters, TLC's Auctioneer$, truTV's Hardcore Pawn, the aforementioned Antiques Roadshow, or even reruns of Cash in the Attic on HGTV.
Though the shows have similarities, each has its own flavor. Our clear favorite is Pawn Stars on History.
(A marathon airs against the Super Bowl this Sunday, Feb. 6, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. ET.)
The action takes place at Gold & Silver Pawn Shop on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where the shop's customers can be as quirky as the items they bring in to sell or pawn. They meld perfectly with the show's "stars," three generations of the Harrison family who oversee operation of the store.
The shop was established in 1988 by Richard Harrison ("The Old Man"), who was looking for a fresh start after losing a million dollars in the real-estate market. The savvy senior Harrison moved his family to Vegas, opened the store and through crafty negotiating turned his initial $10,000 investment into a multi-million dollar business.
The shop is run by Richard's son, Rick, who learned the business at his father's knee from age 13. Though he dropped out of high school to make his "fortune" selling Gucci knockoffs, Rick is astonishingly knowledgeable on a variety of subjects, which he attributes to his passion for reading. His keen eye can spot a fake that would fool most everyone else.
Rick's son, Corey ("Big Hoss"), started in the business at age 9. Though he and his best friend, the buffoonish Austin "Chumlee" Russell, get stuck with a lot of the grunt work at Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, Corey is also in charge of hiring, firing and managing eBay clients. But at this point in his career, Corey has more attitude than knowledge, and knows just how to push both his father's and grandfather's buttons.
Yet between the assortment of items that comes in off the street to get bought, pawned and appraised, and the divergent personalities of the store's staff, this show may have single-handedly changed the image of pawn shops from cheesy establishments where sleazy patrons hang out to the next best place to shop after the outlet mall.
Of course, while most pawn shops deal with mundane electronics and jewelry, Pawn Stars focuses on the fascinating. No doubt due to its high profile from TV exposure, viewers have been privy to seeing items such as a Grammy award, documents with John Hancock's signature, a chessboard made with wood from the Titanic, and Civil War fractional currency being offered for sale. And there seems to be a never-ending supply of antique weaponry, classic cars and classic guitars. In an interview with TV Guide last summer, Rick Harrison said that the coolest stuff in the store at that time included a flag that had been on the moon and the first issue of Playboy magazine featuring Marilyn Monroe.
Because this is the History channel, Pawn Stars is more than just a reality show about making a profit -- you actually learn things. To that end, there are experts the Harrisons consult to ascertain the authenticity and worth of objects brought to them for sale. Perhaps the most recognizable, because of the large amount of weaponry shown, is Sean Rich, whose specialty is antique arms and armor. Rick Dale, who has been shown restoring everything for the Harrisons from an old gas tank to a salesman's sample of a Coca-Cola cooler, has actually scored his own show on History, called American Restoration. There are also experts on western props, signatures, fine art, car restoration, historical artifacts and Early American history.
But mostly the show is just fun, an everyman's Antiques Roadshow, without the didactic pomp and circumstance. It allows itself to be both informative and goofy, and feels like a more organic way to learn about something you might not have known about. And with its half-hour running time, it always leaves us wanting more.
New episodes of Pawn Stars premiere Mondays on History at 10 and 10:30 p.m. ET. Check listings for repeats of current and previous seasons' shows.
'American Idol' Season 10: New Judges, False Hopes
January 20, 2011 10:30 AM
By Ronnie Gill
Living in the Northeast, I hate winter. I really do. But for nearly a decade, one of the things that made winter a little more tolerable was the arrival of American Idol in January. I am an unabashed fan of this wacky and wonderful series. Or at least I used to be.
Somehow, the producers managed to catch lightning in a bottle with the show's original judging panel. Even though Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson all had shortcomings, they somehow melded into an intriguing trio whose chemistry was undeniable. And the talent from Season 1? Kelly Clarkson truly was idol caliber, though only a few other winners since then have been.
Still, over the years, it all made for an entertaining mix and incredibly high ratings. Along the way, The Powers That Be made some minor tweaks, but in Season 8, they decided to really rattle the cage by adding a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi. Whether it was done because they planned on releasing Paula Abdul at the end of that year when her contract expired, or knew that Abdul was planning to leave, or wanted to balance the male-to-female ratio of judges, we'll probably never know. But it unsettled a lot of long-term fans.
During the season, there was a tense vibe between the two women, with Abdul being far more vocal (and surprisingly coherent) and DioGuardi a bit too strident, as she tried to prove herself worthy. The show frequently and annoyingly ran over its time slot, and the contestants, other than electric Adam Lambert -- who in the end lost to dull but charming Kris Allen -- were, well, boring.
Last season, with the absence of Abdul, the addition of Ellen DeGeneres and the prospect of Simon Cowell's imminent departure, things continued to degenerate. Randy Jackson seemed to become even more irrelevant (if that was even possible) as the two women jockeyed for favor. DeGeneres tried to be warm, cuddly and funny, while DioGuardi, who constantly clashed with Cowell her first season, now sat next to him and literally clung to him, often entwining her arm with his.
Surprisingly, DioGuardi was probably the best judge in Season 9, at times contributing the only meaningful evaluations. Though Cowell formerly owned that job, he now seemed burnt out and bored, barely getting up the energy to give even a caustic critique. Other than championing Lee DeWyze, who otherwise probably would not even have made the final five (much less have beaten Crystal Bowersox), Cowell just petered out and melted away by May.
Shortly after Season 9 ended, DeGeneres announced she wouldn't return, and DioGuardi was fired. Other shakeups were to come. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, a driving force behind the original show who had left after Season 7 to concentrate on his series So You Think You Can Dance, returned and promised format changes. The judging panel shrunk back to three, with Aerosmith "legend" Steven Tyler and "triple threat" singer-dancer-actress Jennifer Lopez joining Jackson. Jackson, not impressive on even his best judging days, not only survived the cast changes, but was elevated to "chief judge," the job formerly held by Cowell. Many other format changes will be rolled out as the season progresses. Last night (Jan. 19), Season 10 premiered.
If I'm being honest, as Cowell might say, I wasn't greeting Season 10 with much enthusiasm. Of all the names bandied about as possible judge replacements, Tyler and Lopez were probably at the bottom of my list.
Tyler can be a great performer (as he recently proved during the Kennedy Center Honors), but as a judge, he's way too manic. Yes, he's a rock star, I get it, but a judge who sings along (out loud) with the auditioners, curses a blue streak on camera, and openly ogles the female talent -- all of whom are younger than his two adult daughters -- uh-uh.
His vote was also easily swayed by his fellow judges. He'd start out being negative, then listen to Lopez's histrionics about how hard it is to say "no," and would vote "yes." To his credit, he was the most animated and least boring of the judges. He also had the best line of the evening, the very Simon Cowell-ish crack, "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?," after 19-year-old Michael Perotto of Massachusetts massacred Proud Mary.
I admit, I fell asleep numerous times during the show. Wake up, rewind the DVR, start watching again. Fall asleep, wake up, rewind the DVR and start watching again. Over and over -- and hey, why does it always seem to be when J.Lo is giving her critique? J.Lo critiquing usually consisted of a minute or two of whining about how hard, really hard, no, really, really hard it is to say "no" (she asks Randy, "How did you do this for 10 years?") or "Yes, I like you. You're cute. I say yes." OK, she's pretty and she's sweet, but Abdul was, too. What's missing here is the loopy zaniness that Abdul brought to the mix, as well as, yes, musical knowledge.
We didn't hear J.Lo say anything of any depth or value. Eventually, she learned to say "no," without whining, but you had to be very, very, very bad for that to happen, way past borderline. Right now, she brings nothing to the table.
Randy Jackson is, well, Randy Jackson. He didn't say much, and what he did say wasn't worth remembering. Worse, the same can be said about this first group of contestants trying out in New Jersey. Some were OK, some better than mediocre. But nobody shined, nobody got you excited. Nobody made you want to tune in to see them again (shades of Paula Abdul's Live to Dance).
But that is exactly what American Idol needed to do right off the bat this season: give disenchanted viewers, who tuned in last night out of mere curiosity, a compelling reason to come back again, week after week. In that, it largely failed.
The first audition sums up the night. Rachel Zevita, 22, who made it to Hollywood in Season 6, gushed to Lopez "Why haven't you been here before?" after J.Lo told her she remembered her from four years earlier, and that she and husband Marc Anthony couldn't understand why she'd been cut.
When Randy said, "What about me?" Zevita told him, "You're always my dog. You had my back, you had my back when nobody else did, and I'll never forget that." (A check of YouTube shows that Jackson gave her a very bored, noncommittal "yes" the first time around, when she told the judges she was an opera singer.)
Zevita then sang Hallelujah, and not particularly well. (She sang Eternal Life, another Jeff Buckley song, in her first audition.) The final note was so high-pitched, it actually made Tyler wince and say "oooo."
Lopez said it wasn't the best audition, but "I know you can sing and sing a lot of different things, too" from what she remembered from a few years ago (Zevita sang three different songs for the judges during her first audition).
Lopez then wondered if Zevita's performance suffered because she was nervous. Zevita answered, "I sang for the [finger quotes] famous people before, but they weren't people I looked up to since the age of 4." Jackson cleared his throat and said, "Really?" Zevita, realizing her major gaffe, dissing the "famous person" who minutes earlier she said she'd never forget for having her back, meekly said "I'm sorry, Randy," with her head in her hands.
Zevita then stared at Tyler intently, looking as if she was trying to understood what language he was speaking, as he told her, in something similar to English, "You know, when you came out here you were on fire, you know? You gotta sing something that delivers that same feeling in voice, and in notes and in toneage [sic], like you just spoke. We ought to let her in the door, water that flower, because it's gonna grow. I think you got the 'what it is' is. I think you got it. I just think you need to, you need to redirect it."
Lopez, minutes earlier Zevita's biggest fan, hesitated when asked for her decision. She pursed her lips and reluctantly said, "I'm going to put you through, based on what I remember. But I need to see that, I really need to see that, or you're not going to make it past Hollywood week, like last time." Tyler gave her a yes, as did Jackson, who said, "I think you're worth one more shot."
People, Zevita doesn't have a snowball's chance even in a New York blizzard. This is what Simon Cowell used to mean when he berated his fellow judges for giving these contestants false hope. This girl is going nowhere. Not this year, or ever.
And at this point, the same can probably be said for Season 10 of American Idol.
Golden Globes 2011: Good, Bad, Ricky
January 17, 2011 11:03 AM
By Ronnie Gill
What's more real (or unreal, for that matter) than awards ceremonies? So Altered Reality is tackling Sunday night's Golden Globe Awards . . .
Although we thought Ricky Gervais was pretty funny, we have to assume he'll be persona non grata at next year's event because of his unrelenting comic attacks on everything and everyone. Few survived unscathed, and those who did (e.g. Tom Hanks) rose to the defense of those who didn't (Tim Allen). A few, including Robert Downey Jr., Hanks and Allen, tried to snipe back, but the damage was already done.
Gervais' meanness seems to have grown exponentially with his weight loss. But, hey, the producers hired him for snark, so if Ricky went a little (OK, a lot) too far, it's really not his fault. After all, they loved him so much last year, they asked him to re-up as host before the ceremony was over.
One of his prime targets was the film The Tourist, and its stars Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. We could understand Depp's appearance; he was nominated for best actor for both Alice in Wonderland and The Tourist. But why did Jolie even bother to show up? She didn't have a snowball's chance, even if the awards had been held in blizzard-ridden New York. She looked so frail and wasted, she probably would have been better off chilling at home.
Question: Is Helena Bonham Carter secretly a bag lady? If she wasn't a rich actress, we'd believe it, with the way she dresses and that rat's nest she calls a hairdo. Actually she and director/hubby Tim Burton (who was a no-show) both look like characters out of one of his fanciful films. We were particularly amused by her wearing two different-colored shoes, one red, one green. And her multi-colored Vivienne Westwood mess of a dress didn't even have green in it.
But we have to admit that Sandra Bullock, Tina Fey and Annette Bening were in competition with Carter for worst hair of the evening.
Diane Warren: What was worse, her outfit or her inability to speak a coherent sentence?
Our favorite dresses were worn by Olivia Wilde and Claire Danes. Other women who looked great included Halle Berry, Carrie Underwood (nominated for co-writing the song There's a Place for Us from the film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and Anne Hathaway in a gorgeous sleek metallic dress from Giorgio Armani Prive. Megan Fox was sizzling hot, which may not be news, but, wow, so was Heather Morris from Glee.
Handsomest guy (still) is Jon Hamm, even if our beloved Mad Man lost to Steve Buscemi, a decision we couldn't argue with, since we never miss an episode of either of their shows. Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. are both still gorgeous, but look as if they could also use showers, shaves and haircuts.
Looks we hated included Natalie Portman's rose-on-the-breast dress, as well as her horse laugh during her acceptance speech. And yes, Natalie, we get it. Your future husband and father of your child wanted to do you. Good for you!
Someone also needs to explain to us what was attractive about: January Jones' red bondage dress; Jennifer Love Hewitt's huge napkin-cum-fan bodice; Heidi Klum's whole dress, which looked as if one of her kids threw up on her; and Kelly Osbourne's schizo Zac Posen number.
Is anyone else over one-shouldered dresses, especially the ones with a cabbage patch growing on, off or near the shoulder?
Jennifer Lopez: If her presenting stint at the Golden Globes is any indication of what American Idol is going to be like this season, all we can say is, Oy!
So happy for both Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch, but both of them winning seems contradictory -- he plays the sensitive put-upon gay kid and she the bitch who torments people like him. Somehow, we were glad Lea Michele lost, while Matthew Morrison has a thankless job as Glee's lead; he'll always play second to the kids.
A lot of our other TV choices won, too, so we're smugly happy about: Steve Buscemi and Boardwalk Empire, Laura Linney, Jim Parsons, Claire Danes and Al Pacino. HBO cleaned the clocks of the broadcast and cable industries with Temple Grandin, You Don't Know Jack and Boardwalk Empire, three magnificent productions.
Finally, yes, we're suckers for sentiment and beating The Big C, so we loved the standing O that Michael Douglas received. He and Catherine Zeta Jones looked pretty damn sharp, too.
Paula Abdul's 'Live to Dance' wears Spandex
January 5, 2011 9:17 AM
By Ronnie GIll
If passion about dance equaled excellence, Paula Abdul's new CBS series, Live to Dance, would score an A.
Unfortunately it doesn't.
The show -- which had an unbearably long two-hour premiere on Tuesday, and claims, unrealistically, to be looking for America's best dance performance -- left more than a lot to be desired. It left us bored and wanting to change the channel almost immediately.
Dancers can perform solo, as couples or in groups and be any age. So we were not only treated to sobbing parents proudly watching their questionably talented progeny perform, but also seniors (the oldest was 90), who should be lauded for their ability to still be able to move it, but who clearly had no place in a competition for America's best dancers.
The "talent" never exceeded mediocre and usually fell far short of that. True, the producers might have been holding back some of the better acts for later shows, a la American Idol, which doesn't reveal all of the best performers in their audition stages either. But in this case, we were left with nothing to hold on to, nobody to root for or care whether we saw again.
No matter what their age, almost all of the contestants seemed to think that a loud, cheaply made costume and overdone makeup would be an adequate substitute for formal dance training. The truly talented dancers we have seen audition on So You Think You Can Dance usually come barefaced and wearing dance workout clothing.
A couple of acts near the end of the program -- a group named Twitch from Florida, and a young ballroom couple, D'Angelo & Amanda (9 and 10 years old) -- were about the best of the evening. Twitch, an odd combination of eight girls and one guy, did a routine that wanted to look like Sonya Tayeh choreographed it, but fell far short, leaning more on facial expression than footwork. D'Angelo & Amanda were unbalanced -- she was a far better dancer than he. Plus they just gave us the creeps: She was dressed like a Vegas showgirl in a skimpy two-piece outfit with feathers in her hair and on her butt, huge crystal earrings and a ton of makeup on her pretty little face; he like her Latin lover in Spandex pants and V-neck shirt with a large gold chain around his neck. Sound bad? The coup de grace came when they told us they had been dancing together for about three years and considered themselves to be "in a relationship." Eeeeeew.
But the heart of Live to Dance is pure Paula Abdul, which means sentimentality and lots of awwwwww factor. While the judges, including Abdul, had no problem eliminating contestants -- you needed at least two votes from the three judges to make it to what the show calls its "short list" -- Abdul did have a problem saying "no" to those spunky seniors and one dancer who had hearing loss (none of them deserved to advance). An annoying rule was the ability to try to force a judge to change his or her vote, either from the audience chanting "Change your mind," or pressure from another judge on the panel. What's the purpose of having a judge if his or her opinion could be so easily swayed?
Not that it mattered, as we weren't impressed by the nicer-than-nice critiquing by these "experts." Other than Abdul, billed as the show's executive producer, lead expert and mentor, the panel included former Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt, who did a stint judging on the UK version of the series, called Got to Dance, and Emmy-nominated choreographer Travis Payne, who was choreographer and associate director on This Is It, Michael Jackson's never-to-be concert.
And, of course, the show had to have the requisite foreign accent, this embodied by Australian host Andrew Gunsberg, who most recently served as cohost of Australian Idol.
Trust us, Brit and natural charmer Cat Deeley need not lose any sleep over Gunsberg entering the U.S. market.
So the question is, do we even give this show a second chance after such a bad first impression? We'll let you know.
Beginning tonight, Live to Dance will air on CBS Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET.
Bravo: Changing the Pattern
October 26, 2010 10:37 PM
By Ronnie Gill
If you watched Bravo during its early days, you found foreign and independent films, jazz, ballet and stage productions. Who could have guessed when it was created by Cablevision in 1980 as ''the first television service dedicated to film and the performing arts'' that Bravo would become the creative cauldron of reality TV?
For better or (mostly) worse, a sampling of shows Bravo has foisted on the American public since NBC acquired it in 2002 includes Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, The It Factor, Battle of the Network Reality Stars, Being Bobby Brown, Blow Out, Shear Genius, Make Me a Supermodel, Top Chef, The Real Housewives of Orange County et al, Step It Up and Dance, Hey Paula and Boy Meets Boy.
In December 2004, Bravo launched Project Runway, which touched a chord with a public suddenly obsessed with not only the celebrities who walk the red carpet prior to awards telecasts but also with the designer couture they wear. Project Runway was a huge hit, helping to move Bravo mainstream.
But in 2008 The Weinstein Company, which produced the show, signed a contract to move its runway to Lifetime. NBC Universal sued, eventually receiving a cash settlement in exchange for losing the show. Project Runway may be gone from Bravo, but obviously it has never been forgotten. Bravo is still trying to replace it with something comparable, if not nearly identical.
Its first attempt was May 2009's The Fashion Show, hosted by designer Isaac Mizrahi and former Destiny's Child singer Kelly Rowland. Like Project Runway, it featured design competitors assigned a specific task each week, before facing a panel of four judges (Mizrahi, Rowland, IMG VP Fern Mallis and a guest judge) for elimination. Although the similarities were glaring, the show did exhibit some originality through its weekly Harper's Bazaar Mini Challenge judged by the magazine's Laura Brown. Still, it lacked Tim Gunn's incisive mentoring, while Kelly Rowland was no match for supermodel Heidi Klum, in either the personality or fashion expertise department.
Bravo next tried Launch My Line on for size last December, but it was a schmatta better left hanging on the rack or, better yet, tossed on the garbage heap. Hosted by twin designers Dean and Dan Caten of DSQUARED2, the show matched non-fashion ''industry professionals'' with ''established fashion designers'' to form twosomes who competed against each other in weekly challenges. The hosts were annoying, as were gimmicks such as the large digital countdown clock and the trim room (no going out to shop at Mood on this show). Some decent designing did go on, but it was difficult to sit through an entire episode with so many other irritating things -- though they do get points for a guest appearance by Lady Gaga.
To our surprise, last week Bravo announced The Fashion Show is returning, albeit with host and format changes. Perhaps not so surprising, it premieres Nov. 9 (at 10 p.m. ET on Bravo), on the tails of Project Runway's season finale this Thursday (at 9 p.m. ET on Lifetime).
Supermodel Iman replaces Rowland to co-host with Mizrahi, and in a move that mirrors Project Runway's judging panel of a supermodel (Heidi Klum), a designer (Michael Kors), a fashion magazine editor (Nina Garcia) and guest judges, The Fashion Show panel now consists of Iman, Mizrahi, Laura Brown of Harper's Bazaar and guest judges.
Bravo's press release for Season 2, subtitled "Ultimate Collection," splits 12 designers into two fashion houses. Each house must create a cohesive collection and produce a live fashion show each week.
This Project Runway-meets-The Apprentice format will no doubt accentuate the tension and infighting between the team members, a real drama-queen bonanza. Frankly, where creativity is concerned, we prefer singular players.
But we'll have to wait and see. As Tim Gunn might say, ''Bravo, make it work.''
This Gunn Is a Straight Shooter
September 26, 2010 10:43 AM
By Ronnie Gill
Project Runway's dapper mentor Tim Gunn is one of my heroes. Not only is he whip smart, he usually conforms to a high standard of propriety -- a true gentleman as well as a gentle man.
Some might argue that Gunn steps out of character when he feels compelled to be a truth teller -- be it about the show's judges, its producers, the contestants or the challenges. Not me. It is just another facet of him that I admire.
But as a fervent fan of Team Gunn, I am concerned that his outspokenness could put him in permanent hot water with Project Runway's producers.
Gunn fired the first salvo even before the current Season 8 premiered. (Episodes premiere on Lifetime Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET.) During a conference call with the press, referring to the show's core judges -- host Heidi Klum, designer Michael Kors and Marie Claire fashion director Nina Garcia -- he said, "There's a reason why I call them the crack-smoking judges." The remark was elicited by the judges' misunderstanding of one of the Season 8 challenges. (I'm guessing it was Episode 8; more on that below.)
In his first Facebook vlog this season, Gunn admitted that he was admonished by one of his bosses about his statement about the judges. His response? "Just wait. The crack pipe gets bigger and bigger as the season progresses . . . I believe one of my roles as mentor to the designers is to at least be able to anticipate what the judges may say. I can't. I give up. Who knows?"
And as early as Episode 1, Gunn was vocal about his disagreement with the judges' decision to eliminate McKell Maddox, saying, "I thought her dress was adorable, I thought she did a great job." Gunn also was astonished that they dismissed Maddox over Jason Troisi. Speaking of Troisi's creation, Gunn said, "It was stapled, it was pinned. There wasn't a stitch in any part of it. I mean, talk about an atrocity and a crime against fashion. I was shocked, shocked."
In his vlog for Episode 3, Gunn told us, "I thought the producers were trying to get rid of me," after he arrived early at the agreed-upon spot for that day's shoot, but the producers and designers were nowhere to be found. Saying he's very resourceful, Gunn told us with a Cheshire cat smile, "I found them. They looked a little surprised, to be perfectly honest."
Gunn's most recent "transgression" was contained in his vlog critique of Episode 8 (the vlog has since been removed, but as of this writing could be found here), in which he vents about "the huge amount of frustration" he has had about the content of the challenges. It is now being called his rant vlog.
The episode's original concept was classic American sportswear, an oxymoron according to Gunn since American sportswear hasn't been around long enough to stand the test of time and thus be considered classic. The twist? From each designer's point of view. As Gunn said in the vlog, "It doesn't make any sense. Why wouldn't they be designing from their point of view from the onset of the challenge? . . . What am I telling them? We're going shopping at Macy's? What are they doing? They're copying existing design work?"
Gunn spoke with the show's "uber" executive producers, Sara Rea and Colleen Sands. Sands shared with Gunn that the challenge was actually linked to the History channel's upcoming mini-series The Kennedys, and that the winning design would be worn by Katie Holmes, who portrays First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the film. Gunn argued that this needed to be revealed to the designers, because what they were really being asked to produce was a period costume.
After Gunn, Rea and Sands talked, a decision was reached to dump the Kennedy sportswear challenge for a dance costume challenge. On the day the challenge was to be filmed, Gunn arrived at the dance studio, but no one else was there. Beginning to sound familiar? Eventually, he tracked them down, but when he got to the location, Gunn says instead of meeting "tango people," he saw "a whole wall of Jackie Kennedy iconography."
Because Gunn felt even linking Jackie Kennedy to American sportswear was a stretch -- if anything, Kennedy brought European designers into the vocabulary of America -- he suggested they change the challenge to designing a two-piece sportswear look for Kennedy if she were a young, vibrant woman in today's world.
But when the show aired (Gunn sees it for the first time along with the rest of us), "two-piece" had been edited out when he presented the challenge to the designers. More upsetting to Gunn was that the judges had been given dossiers containing photos of Jackie Kennedy from the early '60s. During the runway Q&A with the challenge's six best and worst designers, the judges were very critical, telling the contestants that Kennedy would have never worn their designs.
No longer able to listen to the criticism, Gunn said he stepped into the judges' circle to explain that the challenge had been for the designers to envision where Kennedy would be aesthetically if she were a young woman today. He said when he left the circle, "The judges were all looking at each other like, 'I think someone needs a strait jacket.' " Gunn added, "Well, I did. But nothing was going to restrain me. I would have broken out of a strait jacket. And don't mess with my designers, judges."
After Gunn removed the vlog, he told the New York Post, "There was a hurtful reaction to a couple of things I said, and that really concerned me. That was never my intention. I thought, 'Let me just take this down.' Lifetime had nothing to do with it. I did it completely on my own." That might be true, although because of Gunn's vlog, we know that Lifetime has asked Gunn to censor himself on at least one previous occasion.
What comes next? Gunn may stop posting vlogs. "I'm debating it," he said. "I don't want to hurt anyone, and at the same time I want to be able to talk matter-of-factly. The experience with this episode has been very sobering for me. It's kind of a wakeup call -- you just can't say anything, yet, at the same time, there are things I want to share. I need to be a little more careful about it, even though we all make mistakes."
Project Runway without Gunn's transparency will leave it almost as boring and opaque as Michael Kors' ever-present black outfits. And that would be a shame.
'Dancing' With Controversy
September 19, 2010 6:03 PM
By Ronnie Gill
I love to dance. Play a beat and I can't stay in my seat. That's probably why I love watching reality TV that features dancing. This type of programming has actually broadened my appreciation for the art. So it is with great anticipation that I await new seasons of my faves, including Dancing With the Stars.
Well, at least until its producers started pushing the envelope for ratings.
No doubt, DWTS has always focused on popularity just as much as dancing skill. Nobody is ever going to convince me that Season 2 runner-up Jerry Rice beat third-place finisher Stacy Keibler based on talent. Ditto Shawn Johnson over Gilles Marini on Season 8. But in its early days, the show for the most part featured contestants known for having some sort of skill, usually acting or athletics, even if it wasn't always star-caliber.
Along the way, ABC has tried to spike the ratings by throwing in competitors whose achievements were questionable. The show's first contestant list (can you believe there were only six on it?) included Trista Sutter, best known for snagging a husband as ABC's first Bachelorette, and actress-model Rachel Hunter, whose celebrity has more to do with being Rod Stewart's second wife.
But those non-starters were rather benign. In fact, I almost pitied ABC for not being able to attract bigger names. That is, until Season 4, when the show's producers seemed to initiate what I call the Bitch Factor.
It works like this: Let's bring on a woman that the public dislikes so much, they'll tune in just to see her voted off.
Enter contestant Heather Mills. Mills' skill was charity fund-raising to ban the use of land mines. But everyone knew she really was chosen because she was in the midst of a bitterly contentious and highly publicized divorce from Paul McCartney. Hiring Mills-McCartney was a PR agent's double dream. The soon-to-be former Mrs. McCartney had also lost part of her left leg when she was hit by a police motorbike 14 years earlier. And she was going to be dancing! Suddenly, the show seemed to be about the publicity and not about the dancing. I was so turned off by the sleazy scheming -- let's face it, the producers didn't book Mills to celebrate the handi-capable -- that I boycotted Season 4. I was heartened when the scheme backfired: Ratings for Season 4 were lower than Season 3.
Things quieted down Season 5. Great, I thought, the show is refocusing on dancing, with an occasional side order of distraction -- i.e., Marie Osmond's fainting spell. Was it staged? We'll never know, but it got people talking about the show and generated publicity.
Season 6 was even more about the dancing, Watching Kristi Yamaguchi nail every dance every week was amazing -- except in the ratings. The performance show fell to No. 8 in the rankings for the 2007-2008 season, the results show to No. 12. Time for the Bitch Factor to return.
Season 7, all eyes were on reality star Kim Kardashian. Kim, along with sisters Khloe and Kourtney, has proven that you don't need to have any talent -- just a notorious deceased daddy -- to be entitled to a reality show or a spot on DWTS. If the O.J. Simpson murder trial had never taken place, would we ever have known that these Kardashians existed? Thankfully, America voted Kim and her booty off on Week 3.
Perhaps sensing the need to stir the pot even more in Season 8, the producers presented a trio of females who could attract animosity: reviled tabloid lady of the moment Denise Richards, accused of stealing BFF Heather Locklear's husband, Richie Sambora; rapper Lil' Kim, who had served time for lying to a jury about a shooting; and Playboy model Holly Madison, whose main accomplishments seemed to be disrobing and breast augmentation. Richards and Madison were dispatched quickly. Lil' Kim [photo at top] was the ninth contestant cut, but deserved to last longer.
The Bitch Factor seemed to have hurt her but not the ratings. By the end of the 2008-2009 season, DWTS had returned to No. 3 for the performance show and No. 7 for the results.
The two females with buzz for Season 9 were Kelly Osbourne and Joanna Krupa. Osbourne, whose fame derives solely from being the progeny of Ozzy and Sharon, surprisingly turned out to be rather insecure -- yet charming and far less crude than expected. Her dancing was never hot, yet she came in third. Krupa, a sometime model and actress, was fierce in every sense including dancing. Finishing fourth, she should have been first or second, but her lack of connection with the audience outweighed her footwork.
I thought the show's nadir would be would be Season 10, with the triple threat Bitch Factor bookings of Pamela Anderson, Shannen Doherty and Kate Gosselin. Again, I boycotted the show. Stars? All that Gosselin and her former husband had proved was that they were efficient at reproducing. Doherty was the first contestant to fall, even though most accounts I read agreed that stiff, awkward Gosselin was the worst. That enough people saw value in her to vote her back three more times scares me deeply. More frightening was that DWTS frequently began beating top-ranked American Idol.
Never underestimate the power of the Bitch Factor.
As the new season of DWTS rapidly approaches (premiering on ABC Monday night at 8 p.m. ET), I am conflicted over whether to watch or just give up on it completely. I abhor the idea that teenage mother-abstinence spokeswoman (talk about an oxymoron) Bristol Palin, who gets paid to tell teens "Do what I say and not what I did,'" is scheduled to appear. The publicity and rumor machines have been churning nonstop since the announcement, building up her Bitch Factor with pronouncements that Palin is already acting like a diva and not showing up for rehearsals, or that fellow contestant Mike '"The Situation'" Sorrentino, whose chief skill is showing off his abs on Jersey Shore, wants to get jiggy with Palin because he thinks she's hot.
Maybe it is finally time to take up abstinence -- from Dancing With the Stars.
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