They make it so easy, Dina and Denise. So easy to judge, so easy to feel superior. From the time Dina Lohan and Denise Richards announced they each would be starring in E! autobiographical reality series, it was pretty much like shooting fish in a barrel. Had the years they spent being trashed in the tabloids -- Dina for being Mama Rose to the talented but troubled Lindsay, Denise for her nasty, public phone-call-transcript divorce from Charlie Sheen -- taught them nothing? Were they so addicted to celebrity they would stoop to bring cameras into their homes, chronicling the daily lives of their young children?
Au contraire, the two argued. They are just two single moms trying to seize the means of production -- if there's such an appetite for their lives, why shouldn't they be the ones to control, not to mention profit from, the story?
Oh, if only the two had used their connections to arrange a little sit-down with Paula Abdul, who also attempted to squelch various tabloid rumors with a short-lived auto-reality series on Bravo. Short-lived because "Hey Paula!" made her look pathetic and insane.
Both "Living Lohan" and "Denise Richards: It's Complicated" open with proof that their stars are Jest Plain Folks -- Dina gets called for jury duty and Denise takes a trip to the DMV to change her name from Sheen to Richards. But we swiftly leave the real world and enter the perilous outland of the celebrity adjacent.
"Living Lohan" has the stronger audience appeal since there is an actual celebrity involved. Although Lindsay is physically absent, her presence hangs over the proceedings like Gene Tierney's dead siren in "Laura." "Sad as it is," Dina narrates from her home in Long Island, N.Y., "every morning I have to get up and get the papers."
By the papers, of course, she means the tabloids, which she combs through looking for mentions of Lindsay before heading to the Internet to do the same thing. "I have to stay on top of it," she explains, even though she doesn't really pay attention to what is being said because "people are idiots."
When not devoted to Googling Lindsay, the show follows Dina's attempt to launch 14-year-old Ali's musical career. This is, of course, the troubling contradiction and rubber-necking seduction of the show: Even as Dina rails against the ravening vultures of the celebrity press, she is firmly propelling her 14-year-old into their treacherous territory. Ali says Lindsay is her "role model. I try to look like her, act like her."
Now, even if Lindsay were a paragon of healthy living, this is not the attitude you like to see in a younger sibling. But then "Living Lohan" is all about watching things you would not like to see in anyone you actually knew.
We watch, for instance, as Dina invites Jeremy, a scruffy twentysomething songwriter she met via e-mail, into their home, where he soon doubles as muse and baby-sitter for Ali and her 11-year-old brother. When Jeremy betrays the family by showing up on the Internet claiming to be Lindsay's boyfriend, it's upsetting, but not quite as upsetting as leaving a scruffy twentysomething musician you met via e-mail alone with your two children. I can only hope the camera crew was there as well
You see how easy it is to be judgmental. It's comforting to know that Dina doesn't care what anyone says about her because it won't be anything good.
A continent away, at the Richards ranch, things are a little more homespun. Like a modern-day Elly May Clampett, Denise has 10 dogs, several cats and a pair of pot-belly pigs. In fact, the pilot manages, and I cannot believe this was intentional, to tell parallel stories of Denise preparing for a blind date and her attempt to find a stud for one of the pigs. (The very young children are barely seen, which is both odd and a mercy.)
Denise, she tells us twice, is not the Bond girl, not the girl from "Wild Things," she's just a girl from Illinois who is all about family. Well, yeah, since those films came out 10 years ago and most of us know her from the queasy details of her divorce, including that Sheen tried to sue to keep her from using their children in this show.
Though obsessively aware of her physical appearance -- she has a tan professionally applied before the above-mentioned date -- she snaps at her help and is profane in a way that is more trashy than sassy.
She does have her newly widowed father living with her, and there is a charming moment when the two go shopping for a barbecue. When dad glances at the $9,000 price tag of the model she likes, his face proves that whatever sub-strata of wealth and celebrity Denise now occupies, she certainly was not born to it.
It's tempting to keen and wail about the corrosive effect of a celebrity-driven culture on the human soul. But every society since the beginning of time has been fascinated by its elite.
When we tune into shows like "Living Lohan" and "It's Complicated," we come because we're curious, eager to admire, perhaps to envy, certainly to judge. Those manor houses were lovely, but they were often cold and impersonal, the furnishings too fussy to be of use, and who would want the burden of maintaining such a life?
Dina Lohan may be able to get her daughter a recording session in Las Vegas, Denise Richards can afford a $9,000 grill or whistle up an instant-tan house call, but would we really want to be either of them?
Lord, let's hope not.