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A Season in Hell



Published June 8, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

And springtime brought me the frightful laugh of an idiot.

-- Arthur Rimbaud

Reality, so to speak, has begun to set in: "Lost" left millions of us with question marks over our heads, where they will continue to hover at least until fall. "House" will make no more calls anytime soon. America's favorite fictional sports writer will have no further adventures, no matter how much "Everybody Loves Raymond." And the plug has been pulled on "Joan of Arcadia," calling into question the existence of savvy CBS executives.

Yes, summer has nearly arrived and, while that's splendid news for those who love the great outdoors, it's a big-time bummer for those who love great TV. Each year around this time, we go through a sort of withdrawal because new installments of our cathode touchstones no longer await us at the end of our working day. The supply has suddenly dried up.

In the old days, this signaled the start of summer reruns. In today's more competitive environment, it signals a tsunami of reality programming made on the cheap. The forecast for the next three months? Boneheadedness of unprecedented proportions. Lest you suspect I'm just a prime-time whiner, consider a few examples of what the season has in store.

One new reality show about dancing is a bad joke; two constitute a sign of the apocalypse. "Dancing With the Stars" (ABC) made its debut last Wednesday, and I seriously doubt a more pinheaded idea for a television broadcast has ever hit the airwaves. No mystery why the thing's hosted by the guy from "America's Funniest Home Videos." C- and D-list celebrities taking lessons from professional hoofers and facing elimination "American Idol"-style through a series of contests? That sounds like fun ... compared to prostate surgery.

"So You Think You Can Dance" promises to be even more like "Idol," given that it's the handiwork of that hit show's creators. The format will be essentially the same, except that everyone will be dancing. The program premieres July 20 on Fox. I'll bet listening to William Hung will seem like a stellar time next to this.

Or next to watching NBC's "I Want to Be a Hilton." Not since "Growing Up Gotti" first graced America's airwaves has a concept this questionable been turned into a network series. Like we don't suffer from Paris overload already -- do we really want to get to know her mother? Debuting June 21, the show has Kathy Hilton mentoring 14 aspiring climbers in the ways of high society, and then putting their upward mobility to the test with weekly contests. I wonder if there'll be one for Best Sex Video.

Hate adolescents? Has ABC got a show for you! In "Brat Camp," premiering July 13, six misbehaving teens are sentenced to hard time in a boot-camp-type facility located in the wilderness of Oregon. Years ago, Sally Jesse Raphael and Maury Povich did this sort of thing on their shows once in a while. If you've been nostalgic for the golden age of TV tough love, you're in for a treat.

"The Apprentice" has spawned a glut of imitators: Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," for example, will chronicle attempts by aspiring cooks to win the approval of cranky British chef Gordon Ramsay. "The Cut" (CBS) will follow 16 contestants with dreams of fashion-designing glory as they compete for a chance to work with Tommy Hilfiger. CBS also has a new show that flips "The Apprentice" formula and features a pair of contestants fighting to see who can get terminated first. By this summer's standards, "Fire Me ... Please" qualifies as nothing short of visionary.

When I was growing up, there was a popular TV program called "Make Room for Daddy." A show is coming to NBC that could have been called "Make Fun of Daddy." Audiences will get to spy on bumbling hubbies as they attempt to keep things from slipping into total chaos while their wives are away on vacation. You can "Meet Mister Mom" August 2.

The suburbs spawn further family fun in "Welcome to the Neighborhood." ABC somehow convinced an assortment of minority, gay and biker couples to take part in this social-science project, in which outsiders compete to crash an all-white cul-de-sac. The experience purportedly tests the preconceptions of the residents. Viewers can probably expect it to test their patience.

Considering how "Idol" dominated the airwaves this past season, it's not surprising that a number of summer fill-ins have a musical theme. A large number. They fall into three categories:

First, there are the "Osbournes" rip-offs. Fox's entry, "The Princes of Malibu," premieres July 10 and follows music producer David Foster as he lives the music-producer life in a palatial waterfront estate. Could this be what Andy Warhol meant when he said everybody will get to be famous? Who's David Foster?

More likely to attract an audience, but pretty silly sounding nonetheless, is "Tommy Lee Goes to College" (NBC), in which the Motley Crüe drummer enrolls at the University of Nebraska, tries out for the marching band, and studies for tests. Is it just me, or does anyone else think watching the guy live his "normal" Motley Crüe drummer life would be more interesting? I think they should have sent David Foster to college and followed Lee around his palatial estate. We'll see whether I'm right starting August 16.

Britney Spears and her mumbling mate Kevin Federline can currently be seen in "Chaotic" on UPN. It's not clear how long that will be possible, however, as the agonizingly vapid series is in a ratings freefall.

"Hit Me Baby 1 More Time" -- how's that for a segue? -- is a category unto itself: a program that's simply been stolen lock, stock and barrel from another network. A while back, VH1 came up with the idea for a show on which long-dormant rock groups got back together for a live performance. "Bands Reunited," which I reviewed in this column in February 2004, allowed us to catch up on what acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Romeo Void and A Flock of Seagulls have been doing since their '80s heyday. Now, NBC offers a slightly "Idol"-ized imitation that promises to get long-dormant groups such as The Knack, Wang Chung and A Flock of Seagulls together for a live performance. And here I thought being a producer entailed more than watching TV and copying the shows you like.

Last but not least (or maybe it is) in the music category is the grisly replace-the-dead-band-member trend in summer programming. Not one but two shows feature competitions to do exactly that. "Rock Star: INXS" debuts July 11 on CBS and will give amateur singers a chance to assume the role in the Australian band once occupied by Michael Hutchence, who died in 1997.

"Are You the Girl?" is UPN's contribution to the category. The show will chronicle the search for someone to take over for the late TLC vocalist Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, so the surviving members of the trio can get their careers back in gear. Call me old-fashioned, but I preferred it when bands considered the untimely demise of a member a tragedy, not a promotional opportunity.

These shows are just the tip of the iceberg, which is an appropriate metaphor since most will turn out to be disasters. In addition, "The Scholar" (ABC) will showcase the scintillating drama of high school students taking oral exams. In "The Law Firm" (NBC), real lawyers will argue real cases in front of real judges, which, let's be honest, sounds real boring. In "Beauty and the Geek" (WB), producer Ashton Kutcher gives nerdy guys a chance to win over babes who wouldn't speak to them if doing so didn't get them on national TV. And "Kept" (VH1) has former model/Mick Jagger ex-wife Jerry Hall whittling through a gaggle of beefy contenders in search of the perfect gigolo. I'm sorry, I just don't want to see that.

You know what I wouldn't mind seeing? A special edition of "Fire Me ... Please" featuring the producers of this summer's reality fare. Something tells me they would all turn out to be winners.