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You might've heard of them

The unscripted TV world is placing its bets on C-list celebrities. It's a gamble both sides hope pays off.

January 05, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Corey Feldman's cheese blintzes were getting cold. We were sitting at an outside table at Jerry's Famous Deli in Encino, and Feldman was attempting to explain why he'd done "The Surreal Life," a staged reality series debuting Thursday on the WB network.

In the show, seven "celebrities" of some pop culture repute share a house above Mulholland Drive. They stay for a week and a half, never living with fewer than three camera crews. Like most of reality TV, the show borrows from existing formats, including two MTV shows, "The Real World" and "The Osbournes," and "Big Brother," a European invention. .

"The Surreal Life" imposed a variety of constraints on its cast, perhaps none more traumatizing than the confiscation of pagers and cell phones. The house was converted into a modish Hollywood pad, with decorative touches like a fish tank. A gym was installed. And better lighting.

In this "Big Chill" re-imagined as a kind of encounter group for the almost-famous, Feldman shared a bedroom with Vince Neil, singer for the heavy metal group Motley Crue. Gabrielle Carteris, formerly of "Beverly Hills, 90210," Brande Roderick, formerly of "Baywatch," and Jerri Manthey, a former contestant on "Survivor," shared another bedroom, while "Manny and Hammer," as they were known, occupied a third bedroom. That would be Emmanuel Lewis, formerly TV's "Webster," and Hammer, formerly MC Hammer, of "U Can't Touch This" fame.

Feldman, of course, is the former child star ("Stand by Me") turned drug-addicted Hollywood bad boy who faced a very '90s dilemma: Keep drugging or be forced to do "Meatballs 4" sober.

"I will honestly be very upset if [the show] has the appearance of making fun of any of us," Feldman said at Jerry's. At the producers' urging, Feldman proposed to his girlfriend from a pay phone in the living room and got married on the last day of shooting.

What the heck, it was true love, and besides, there were those cameras. He had met the former Susie Sprague in a Hollywood nightclub, Feldman said, and she had a glow about her (and this was before she'd lost weight, he said). He was smitten enough to break two of his relationship rules: Don't date a fan, and don't date anyone you meet in a nightclub.

And so the wedding was held in the backyard of the "Surreal Life" house, in a ceremony jointly officiated by Hammer, who today is a preacher in the Northern California town of Tracy, and a rabbi supplied by the WB.

The rabbi from Feldman's temple wouldn't do the ceremony. "Not because it was on TV," Feldman said, "but because Susie isn't Jewish."

Former somebodies reemerge

For audiences hooked on ABC's "The Bachelor" and Fox's "American Idol," it comes down to this: Would you rather watch unknowns become somebodies, or see former somebodies, like so many Norma Desmonds, stave off the terrifying prospect of once again being unknown?

Anonymity, networks have discovered, is a key component to reality TV's voyeuristic appeal. Plug celebrities into the equation, even the C-listers these shows attract, and the fantasy-camp appeal of the genre dissipates. More than anything, reality TV exists to make instant-oatmeal stars of otherwise unrecognized people, but the formats grow tired so quickly that producers inevitably turn to the famous and/or infamous as novelty contestants.

While CBS balked at a celebrity "Big Brother" because the network couldn't land big enough stars, a celebrity edition of "Survivor" is more likely.

Meanwhile, on ABC, "Celebrity Mole Hawaii," a star-studded version of the reality series "The Mole," debuts Wednesday.

"The Osbournes," whose second season recently began on MTV, remains the model marriage between reality TV and celebrity. But trying to mint "The Osbournes" might be as hard as copying "Seinfeld." For all the talk of its social dysfunction, the family -- heavy-metal dad, tough-as-nails mum, kooky kids -- is a remarkably cohesive show-business unit, exuding both family and lunacy (a redundancy, come to think of it).

By contrast, "The Anna Nicole Show" fails to rise above the Faustian deal ex-pinup Anna Nicole Smith signed with E! Entertainment Television. Clearly damaged and overweight, Smith is held up for camp amusement, a la "The Osbournes," but instead comes off as used and pathetic, and the show at times plays like one long videotaped suicide note. E! recently ordered a fresh batch of 13 episodes.

"As dysfunctional as they are, you walk away feeling entertained, you feel pretty good about it," Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president at NBC, said of "The Osbournes." "You watch an 'Anna Nicole,' you don't feel so good."

During his tenure as an executive at VH1, Gaspin developed "Behind the Music," which helped popularize a wave of rise-and-fall and where-are-they-now programming focusing on aging rock stars and former one-hit wonders.

"The ones that keep coming back, you have to assume, they're coming back because (a) they're addicted and want to get a little taste again, and (b) they need the money, they need the job."

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