This months shocking exposé: the weird new wave of celebrity tragedy shows. It has sneaked in under the radar of the national press, but its hit, big-time. Heres my theory: Were a people obsessed with the rich and famous. For decades broadcasters have made fortunes pandering to viewers insatiable fascination with TV, movie and music royalty. Until recently, its been enough to simply offer a glimpse, Barbara Walters-style, into the rarified world these mortal gods inhabit. But, like addicts who have built up their resistance, Americans are simply not finding this sort of thing enough anymore. We need a new twist, a new spin on celebrity coverage. Recently it occurred to someone at some place like "Entertainment Tonight" or the E! channel or "Hard Copy" that the only thing more compelling than watching stars have it all would be watching them lose it all.
And, presto, the latest in low-budget, down-and-dirty, easy-to-produce and hard-to-take-your-eyes-off TV. "E! True Holly-wood Stories" is just one of several features on the showbiz-happy channel. Along with the programs "Mysteries & Scandals," it offers viewers a look at the sorry, sordid flip side of fame with episodes like "The Last Days of Judy Garland," "The Last Days of Sharon Tate," "The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe." You get the idea beautiful people profiled in all their private agony.
Sometimes, the show will profile the pain and degradation of a famous shows entire cast, not just individual stars. During a recent installment on "Eight Is Enough," for example, I was fascinated to learn that one of the shows child stars, a 10-year-old boy, passed the time between takes smoking weed and watching porn.
Which reminds me of Robert Downey Jr. Could the Oscar-nominated thespian and dope fiend have picked a more perfect moment in history for bottoming out? The national preoccupation with fallen stars has allowed the mumbly ex-con to spin his ongoing substance-abuse problems into a regular role on "Ally McBeal" and virtually every entertainment show on television. An "Entertainment Tonight" without an update on the actors antics or court dates has become as unthinkable as a night without well, without Tom and Nicole.
That Hollywood pair has become the First Couple of celebrity tragedy since the news of their breakup went public. The whole country is in mourning. Especially Kim and Alec. Their careers are in a lot worse shape, so they could have used the publicity. But, you know what they say: Timing is everything.
"Entertainment Tonight" is second only to the E! network in its devotion to celebrity woe. These guys have been at it so long they dont even need to shoot new footage to satisfy public hunger. They just edit together archival crap under melodramatic titles like "ETs Greatest Scandals" and "ETs Whatever Happened to " They regurgitate old coverage of tragedies like Jim Nabors liver failure, Jack Klugmans throat cancer, Andy Griffiths heart attacks, Rock Hudsons AIDS and Im not making this up Sally Struthers chronic inability to get a date.
A recent "Greatest Scandals" dealt exclusively with the suffering brought to starlets by botched boob jobs. I was particularly moved by the account related by wrestler Chyna, who recalled the moment when she burst an implant while doing battle in the ring. Ouch! Loni Andersons boob-related travails were tragic, too, but while she recounted them I couldnt help thinking, heres a woman whos had something a whole lot weirder than silicon inside her: Burt Reynolds.
Seriously, though, space limits the examples I can give here of this new mutant showbiz genre. Matthew Perrys back in rehab again. Hes sure to steal some of Robert Downey Jr.s airtime for a week or two. Then theres the Puffy trial. Kind of a bummer he and Lopez couldnt make it work, huh? No, I didnt think so, either. Did you notice it took her a full week after the announcement of their split to find someone new? Hows that supposed to make Sally Struthers feel?
Anyway, suffice it to say the phenomenon isnt confined to tabloid television. Its everywhere. VH1s "Behind the Music" has become an institution by getting has-been recording stars to fess up about their overdoses and financial ruin. Lifetimes "Intimate Portraits" does essentially the same thing, only with has-beens of the stage and screen. As does "Headliners & Legends With Matt Lauer," which offers the tragic poop on celebrities outside of show business as well, and airs daily on the decidedly non-tabloid MSNBC.
What does it all mean? Who do I look like Margaret Mead? All I know is, our cultural fixation with the famous and their misfortunes is big business and getting bigger every day. Weirder and more intrusive, too. "Entertainment Tonight" aired the 911 call Drew Barrymore made recently as her house burned to the ground. How much entertainment value did that have, really? And wasnt it a tad creepy watching the footage from Dale Earnhardts dash-mounted deathcam over and over again for days after the legendary NASCAR racers fatal crash? We came full circle with that one, wouldnt you say? The media offers a sneak peek at how the great live, then a front-row seat so we can watch the way they die.
Anyway, thats my professional media insight for this month. I make no judgments; its not my place to say whether all this is good or bad. At least, until the day I turn on the TV and find "ETs Whatever Happened to Richard Hatch?" Then Ill think its pretty much all good.