THE short-lived Fox show "The Princes of Malibu" was nothing more than a speck of reality-TV stardust, vivid only as it expired. But the story that took place around the show has proved much more resonant. For its starring family, the show triggered a shift so profound that the "real life" that inspired it is now more elusive than ever. "You take a modicum of truth and expand upon it until it's not recognizable as the truth, which is pretty much an accurate description of what we did," said lyricist and actress Linda Thompson, speaking from Villa Casablanca, the 22-acre Malibu estate where her family was filmed for the show. "What is reality? I'm still struggling with that one."
Indeed, the boundaries between real and manufactured experience have never been more blurred than they are today, as unscripted TV continues along its voracious path through pop culture. And when an engineered melodrama is set in the moneyed canyons of Malibu, true perspective is so ambiguous it makes an acid flashback seem lucid. Here, in the city's isolated enclaves -- where Britney Spears and Dick Van Dyke are neighbors, where nearly every home is as fortified as the Pentagon, where an entire economy is driven solely by the pampering of the rich -- lies a sort of parallel universe.
The usual controls that curb excess, define identity and cultivate meaning don't exist here. It's a gilded but disorienting existence. Kids like Thompson's sons, Brody and Brandon Jenner, are raised so tantalizingly close to the icon status of their rock star/movie mogul/celebrity guru parents that if they haven't earned their own stars by age 25, they're labeled near-failures. No wonder it's hard to resist the lure of reality TV, a seeming shortcut to fame that grows increasingly legitimate.
Like so many Hollywood couples with exorbitant wealth, a circle of famous friends and demi-celebrity of their own, Thompson and composer David Foster lived relatively quiet lives. Then Thompson's sons dropped out of college, eager but unqualified for their own slice of fame, and a family friend saw opportunity in their decadent lifestyle. A little stage-managed notoriety seemed like a good idea, something for Brandon and Brody to call their own.
Then the first two episodes of "The Princes of Malibu" aired, and suddenly 4.5-million viewers were privy to the screaming tantrums Foster directed at his two stepsons, Thompson's seeming obliviousness to the family's disintegration, and the perverse self-indulgence of Brandon and Brody. Much, if not all, of the chaos was engineered by show producers -- all in the name of the semi-staged, sitcom-style silliness of reality TV -- but everyone agrees the simmering hostility within the family was genuine.
The day after the show's July 10 premiere, Thompson filed for divorce. Eleven days later, "Princes" was canceled. Instead of an exuberant Us Weekly cover, the family found itself the subject of snarky reports in the New York Post's Page Six, which had Foster blowing up at a crew from the syndicated show "The Insider." Then came the National Enquirer, in which that ambitious family friend -- Brody's best pal and show co-creator, Spencer Pratt -- said this clan made "the Osbournes look cuddly."
This level of public intimacy with the wealthy used to be rare; the melodrama of the rich was accessible primarily in novels. Now, however, there's an entire industry devoted solely to the intersection of celebrity and wealth, documenting their possessions, their love lives and their breakdowns. And if the saga of "The Princes of Malibu" and its sorry aftermath show anything, it's that when the reality-TV crews are invited in, the rich and famous have no more control over their TV images than the low-lifes on "Cops" or the couples on "Temptation Island."
Made for TV?
THE case of "Princes" started in summer 2004 with Pratt, a USC film and political science student who had known the family since his teen years at Santa Monica's elite Crossroads School and seen enough mischief at Villa Casablanca to convince him that they could produce "a wild, fun party show." What could be more TV? The carefree Malibu lifestyle of two over-privileged, model-handsome young men; Foster's Grammy wins and star clients; their lush canyon compound; some healthy father-son conflict, offset by Thompson's unshakable charm. There was even an Elvis Presley link: Thompson dated the King in the years before he died.