Tuesday, April 26, 2005

TV - The Rise, Fall and Rebirth A&E

I remember, not long ago, when A&E was The Smartest Network on TV.
Today, it prominently features "Dog The Bounty Hunter" in primetime. And when you get down to it, isn't that descriptive clause - "prominently features 'Dog The Bounty Hunter' in primetime" - a working definition of "Smartest Network on TV-on-Opposite Day?"
What happened?

That's a question worth reviewing because, as in ice climbing or pictures of yourself in high school, you don't realize just how massive the cliff was until you look back at it.
And I want to discuss two shows currently on A&E, one of which is the most unbearable show on the air, a weekly summation of all that's gone wrong (and no, not "Dog" - can there be anything to say about such a show that its title doesn't already shout?)
But it's the other, brand new show I really want to address. Because I'm teetering on the edge of calling it the best show on TV.
We'll see.

So just a few years ago, A&E had “Law and Order” on heavy syndication as its franchise; the dignified and smart “Biography" as it's trophy show; a long list of smart British imports surrounding them; and the occasional well-produced domestic documentary on chaos theory or Egyptian art or Verdi operas or something.
Maybe no one was watching. Certainly everyone talked as if they were.
First, the network lost “Law and Order” to TNT, a devastating blow. In fact, it was a double gut-punch because, for one, at that point A&E and "L&O" were pretty firmly connected as brands. If you caught a new Law & Order on NBC, you'd think, "hey, the A&E show!" But worse, L&O inspired deep loyalty in millions of the most desirable viewers: smart, spendy. nightly addicts. Law and Order was THE guilty TV fix of the 90s, and probably the 4th best thing about the entire broadcast decade, behind Seinfeld, the Simpsons and James Earl Jones-CNN bumpers.
A&E losing L&O was like NBC losing the NFL, Letterman and Cheers all at once.
What was left? Well, actually, less and less.
Soon “Biography” ran out of interesting people (“next week: Penn from Penn and Teller!”) just about the same time they – idiotically – decided to go daily, and then they spun it off as it’s own channel.
When TLC launched “Trading Spaces,” that made open season on stealing good British shows for American audiences. Goodbye to that revenue stream.
Then, as the coupe de gras, Bravo bought the “West Wing," and promptly gave it the complete "Law & Order" treatment - Monday marathon, three times every other day, the latest one at bedtime, first one's free, tell your friends.
And A&E, like a hard-dumped boyfriend, just collapsed. Today, it's probably the worst network on the air, edging it’s sister in faux-dignity, History Channel. The difference is small but vital: History Channel is War porn, while A&E is literally for snuff fans– true crime of the stickiest sort and lots of it.
“Cold Case Files,” “The First 48,” “City Confidential,” “American Justice.” Dreary, utterly interchangeable “real-life” shows about droopy, work-a-day cops paddling upstream against America’s industry of petty killings. And "Dog."
And the network’s signature syndicated series? “Crossing Jordan” and “CSI: Miami.”
Arts and Entertainment, indeed.
So, trying to stop the bleeding, A&E has taken a couple swings at the ‘Reality’ piƱata in recent season (Hence, the "Dog" show). I’ve been trying to write about one of the resulting shows for a while, because - in now-typical A&E style – it went not just wrong, but incredibly, fantastically, jaw-droppingly wrong and is now the worst show on TV, full stop.
And the other might be – miraculously - the very best.

I am not one to be mesmerized by the grotesque (car wreck gawking, etc), but I’ve been pulled into the awfulness of “Growing Up Gotti” for 3 full episodes.
I’m over it now, but the scars run deep.
The show is a follow-around of the Osbournes-variety, only the subject is someone named Victoria Gotti, who is related, somehow, to John Gotti. Daughter? Possibly. Evidently, she has written some junk novels and now is a 'gossip' writer for a supermarket tabloid. Not that you can tell from the show.
There are no gangsters, crime or underworld politics on display (which might have been interesting). Just a rich, trashy woman with more money than sense and her three awful sons.
Victoria is mid to late 40s and fading fast, with bottle blonde hair and store bought tits, filthy-helacious rich, living in a comicly palatial Long Island suburban house. Every item she owns, wears or covets screams ‘trash with money.’
But taste isn’t everything so, fortunately, she’s shrill, airheaded and ill-tempered, with ZERO discernable talent, skill, income or even interests. Oblivious to her fabulous wealth, she is bored by the world and pissed that it doesn’t entertain her more. She keeps ridiculous hangers-on around her and spends money without thought or purpose.
One of her vanity habits is to employ young, motivated, smart ‘assistants’ and abuse them terribly.
If it sounds like she is a subject ripe for great comedy, then you've spotted the fatal flaw of the show. Either by contract, laziness or just stupidity, the show takes Victoria completely seriously, even though the world clearly does not. The producers seem to think they are the breathless chroniclers of a dynamic, modern woman's (and a single mom!) fast-paced, high-purpose, deeply complicated life.
Only they aren't. Victoria is a crass, deeply ridiculous, embittered and angry bimbo.
The Smoking Gun seems to get the joke. But A&E can't - or refuses - to see it.
The counter-example is the first season of the Osbourne's, a show which understood it was filming a madman running his own asylum. Every episode, the joke - sick as it was - was on Ozzie (who, to his credit, laughed right along).
Not here. In fact, Victoria is actually the narrator and very nearly the entire script of those narrations are witless jokes about her life that, as she reads the script over the pictures, she doesn’t seem to get (“…but then again, going to dinner with me is always a major production.” Make it stop).
And if it was just her, it would be one of the most boring shows of all time.
Sadly, she has 3 sons. Not for a year of house payments would I have bet that you could produce 3 Italian-American teenagers less appealing than the fictional AJ Soprano. Yet AJ is a regular Sonny Corlene next to the Gotti kids.
Alarmingly feminine and in a perpetual state of entitled preen, the three "boys" (as she calls them) spend thier lives sulking, complaining, joylessly consuming and avoiding eye contact with the world.
Perhaps the show's only real hook is the frustration it inspires. As a viewer, you need to see these three DO SOMETHING. Anything - they are rich, young, the kind of silly handsome that attracts silly girls, and have absolutely no responsibilities or discipline at all. The mind simply can't accept that three such kids would be so willfully dull. As each episode grinds to close, you feel compelled to watch another because - SURELY! - they're about to come to life!
But they never do.
In fact, since the entire show – rich, mafia-linked family living charmed life in the Burbs – is an obvious Sopranos cash-in, a viewer finds themselves jonesing for Christa’fa’ to show up at their door, call them sissies, scare them shitless and take their mink coats for gambling debts.
Yeah, mink coats. Teenagers all, they wear fur coats (well maybe – in one episode, one of them gets cheated out of some princely sum for a “chinchilla” coat that Victoria then pegs as rabbit-hide - hilarious) and piles of jewelry valued in the 5 digits.
Issues like school and the future do not ever cloud their fake-tan faces, and they are the worst kind of phony-tough (in one episode, set loose in a water park full of similar teenagers, they leer at girls like safari tourists and appear frightened of other kids their age).
They lounge, stare at themselves in most of their home’s numberless mirrors, communicate by mumbling and opt out of physical labors large and small (in one episode they let their groundskeeper set up their basketball hoop; in another, they watch him carry mattresses by himself out of a needed room).
The groundskeeper, though a silly man, is the only redeemable character. In one episode, Victoria, terrified that some dinner guests will judge her to be low class (imagine!), she forces him to pretend to be an Italian Count. He does, inventing a ridiculous history for himself as he and the obviously-trash-his-ownself dinner guest get wasted together.
I want to drop some quotes on you as evidence to the show’s mindlessness, but really – like Scott McClelland, nobody says anything worth repeating, not even to make fun of it.
A terrible show, the worst non-CSI production currently on the air. Catch it just to see how bad things can be, and to boycott the sponsors.

And then set the VCR for “Intervention” and send the kids to bed. Unlike anything else on TV.
“Intervention” is clearly produced by the same people who do MTV’s always-rewarding Real Life series and its documentary spinoffs (I want a famous face, etc). In those show, the cameras find utterly ordinary people who have one, deep story to tell – the shows have titles like “I’m a Mu Tai kick boxer,” “I’m a binge drinker” “I’m a professional weight lifter” “I’m a teenage parent” (regard the latter: get a copy; show it to a group of 14 year olds; collect your chips when you get to Heaven).
“Intervention” is a clear spin-off – the pacing, cuts, and even graphics are all the same.
Only the people have much bigger problems. They are big-time addicted to something. And at the end of each episode, their friends and family hold an intervention, forcing them into treatment almost – but not quite – against their will.
I’m no behavioral expert, but the four people we’ve seen so far sure looked like they needed it. As bad habits go, they were about 3 exits past ‘pissed it all away.’
In two episodes, we’ve seen shopping (bankruptcy 2 years ago) and gambling ($200,000 in the hole), pain pills (stealing them from her terminally-ill-with-cancer boyfriend) and ‘cutting’ – when somebody slices themselves as a release/fix.
You’ll never see an American Justice ‘recreation’ with as much blood as the cutter spills on camera after a hard, frustrating night out at the clubs.
And the horror of the show, which is its power, is that they aren’t freaks or losers but people who have lost their way, slow by slow, and before they knew it found themselves in an avalanche of addiction.
If you think addiction is ‘weakness,’ watch this show.
In every single case, during moments of mental collapse (a frequent event in these lives), each of them will drop into word-blurting, and out will come the language of pain:
The gambler, stiff with shame, while begging his mom for money: “I..I Hurt!”
The shopper, suffering panic attacks in the car: “This… Is… Torture…This… Is…Torture!”
The pill popper’s pills are for pain.
And the cutter… well, use your imagination.
Maybe each of them, years before and a million miles ago, committed some dubious sin or gave way to some human weakness that started the slide, but the people you meet in this show are no more ‘weak’ or ‘guilty’ of their illness than someone drowning in a river.
The shop-a-holic is an actress who was on “E.R.” for 3 years (the residual checks fuel her habit) – then she had, in effect, a nervous breakdown and never recovered. Now she hides in her house for weeks, emerging only to shop.
The gambler was a child genius, graduating from UCLA at 14. Only he never grew up and drifted into gambling to escape the adult world (I thought it was clear, though the show never said, that gambling was, to his hyper-smart brain, the ultimate ‘puzzle,’ an unsolvable challenge that his ego forced him ever deeper into). He’s gambled away, among other things, his parents’ house (the mileage on his mom and dad’s faces is unexpressable).
The pill addict was an ex-social worker, who used to be in charge of 41 case workers. She lost it all to prescription pills. Her dying boyfriend both enables her and tries to get her to quit.
And the cutter – a young-20s, super cute party girl from Arizona, popular in school, an artist and musician, surrounded by friends who admire her and two strongly Christian parents at home (mom is grounded and miserable about her daughter, and gives the best speech of all I’ve seen at the intervention; but dad is serene in the Lord to the point of callousness. His reaction to the cutting-thing: “your body is your temple in the eyes of the lord. You don’t want to damage your temple, do you?” – thanks, pops).
They all think they are being filmed for a show “about addiction” and each of them freely talk about their horrors.
And then, under the direction of a psychologist, they are confronted, by surprise, by all of the family and friends they have left.
So far, 3 took it well. Two of them had, I thought, a sense of relief, the other just defeat. One wanted no part of it and let everybody know it. Awesome.
It might not be enough to redeem A&E, but it’s the best show on TV.
At least until Laguna Beach launches season 2.

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