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Getting Along Famously



Published July 27, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Andy Warhol said, famously, that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. This has proven to be an astonishingly prophetic bit of social commentary -- though a more accurate statement might have been that in the future everyone would compete to become famous for 30 to 60 minutes weeknights on TV. What Warhol observed in America was a lust for fame metastasizing throughout the population -- to those with talent as well as those without a lick of it.

What he couldn't have foreseen at the time was the blight of reality television. The form, it goes without saying, has all but taken over the airwaves for the summer. Most of the new shows are rip-offs of other shows, totally disposable cathode filler or both, but a couple do provide a harrowing before-and-after vision of the American celebrity dream.

"Rock Star: INXS" is the latest brainchild of "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett and airs three evenings a week on CBS. While the format is similar to that of "American Idol," the program's premise makes a giant leap beyond it, in that aspiring singers are offered not merely a shot at establishing a performing career but the chance to join an already hugely successful band. Instant big-time.

At first I felt the contest was an iffy idea and in somewhat poor taste, given that it's predicated on the tragic 1997 death (and possible suicide) of lead singer Michael Hutchence. In the old days, rock bands quietly replaced self-destructing members and went about their business. There were no prime-time competitions to find fill-ins for Brian Jones or Keith Moon.

To my surprise, however, "Rock Star: INXS" is immensely entertaining. For one thing, the show celebrates Hutchence's talent and accomplishments. For another, the 15 original contestants are authentic rockers. There's not a Clay Aiken in the bunch. The lightest-weight among them makes Bo Bice look like Bo Peep.

In addition, the judges are the surviving members of INXS themselves, not some randomly assembled panel of industry types. They're a good-natured lot who aren't out to hurt anybody's feelings but know the real thing when they see and hear it. Dave Navarro (part-time Chili Pepper) and Brooke Burke (of E!'s "Wild On" and swimsuit-calendar fame) act as hosts, but the production doesn't really need them. The band members have enough charisma, wit and showbiz savvy to run the show on their own.

Another departure from "American Idol": You're actually likely to hear some good music. These young performers belt out real rock songs like pros -- no Barry Manilow or Neil Sedaka theme nights. In my humble opinion, the punked-up version of "California Dreamin'" by a contestant named J.D. would sell millions if it were released tomorrow. My money's on him and a young woman named Jordis -- though she may have a slight edge. First, she looks like a dreadlocked Angelina Jolie, only with more tattoos. Second, the group's guitarist confessed, "I think I love you," after her performance in episode two.

The dark flipside to the fervent pursuit of fame is splayed out in all its nightmare freakishness in the new Bravo series "Being Bobby Brown." I swear a more bizarro spectacle has yet to be broadcast. Next to this, "The Osbournes" looks like "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."

I barely know where to begin. Perhaps with the admission that I don't know squat about Brown's music, other than that he's an r&b singer who peaked in the late '80s and early '90s. The only other familiarity I had with his name was from years of headlines chronicling his problems with substance abuse and brushes with the law. And, of course, I knew that he's married to Whitney Houston, who used to be one of this country's musical sweethearts but is currently neck-and-neck with Courtney Love for Most Whacked Out Woman in Show Business.

I've watched "Being Bobby Brown" for a few weeks now, and I have to say: He may be far from perfect, but my heart goes out to the guy. Despite being rich and famous, he's relentlessly henpecked by Houston and spends the better part of most episodes in the doghouse. She's taken on a cadaverous, semi-crazed look and is often caught by the cameras screeching at fans who approach her for autographs.

That is, when she's not screeching at Brown and doing everything in her power to turn their three kids against him. Other than news coverage of devastating tragedies, I've never seen more traumatized children on television. My heart goes out to them, too. Houston makes Michael Jackson look like a model parent.

Brown has got to be in big-time love, because he shrugs it off for the most part, goes out of his way to indulge fans, and waits till the missus is out of range before methodically ingesting vast quantities of alcohol. You've got to wonder, though, how someone who stars in his own reality show convinces himself the coast is clear. I mean, sure, Houston has left the building, but whatever he's waited to do in her absence is going to be taped and broadcast on national television. You just know he's going to pay.

The bottom line: Brown's a nut, a wild man, and he can be crude, but he's also, seemingly, a good soul with the patience of a saint. Hey, if I were married to Whitney Houston, I'd move into a bottle as fast as I could get the top unscrewed. Brown's show is a mesmerizing reminder that fame and fortune do not come with a guarantee of happiness or peace of mind. There's a lesson here for our celebrity-obsessed society, though I imagine few out there in TV land are likely to take note of it.