Last night was one of those nights when TV critics earn their paychecks. No, I don’t mean staying up until the wee hours to review Conan O’Brien’s first Tonight Show. I mean watching two hours of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! on NBC.
Now, this franchise has been running on UK TV for some time, and ABC did an installment in 2003. I was a TV critic at the time; I’m sure I must have had to watch it; but time has repressed that trauma and I suspect only a Sidney Friedman-style therapy session could bring it back. So it is possible that the earlier version and its guests were just as insipid. But it’s also possible that there is a Moore’s Law of D-list vapidity, in which every 18 months our reality stars get twice as inane.
Spencer Pratt, the most aptly surnamed man in show business, is living evidence for the second theory, and he—and to a lesser extent his wife Heidi—was the main reason to watch the show at all. Spencer’s crowning moment was getting on the phone with NBC programming chief Ben Silverman to whine—well, basically, “I’m a celebrity … get me out of here.” Pratt, he said, “was too rich and too famous” to be cleaning latrines and sharing screen time with insignificant basic-cable nobodies. (Pratt, you see, is a significant basic-cable nobody.) And he uttered what others will have a hard time unseating as The Greatest TV Line of 2009: “This cast is devaluing our fame!”
The man either completely lacks self-awareness, or he is the greatest performance artist since Andy Kaufman. But you know—he had a point about the celeb-wattage of the rest of the crew. I’m pretty sure that hosting I’m a Celebrity automatically qualifies you to compete on the next season of I’m a Celebrity.
The second-most interesting trainwreck was Patti Blagojevich, taking a bullet for husband Rob (who was prevented by the courts from doing the show) and telling a gaggle of credulous celebs—who seemed to be hearing about the Senate-sale scandal for the first time—that her hubby had been railroaded.
Spencer and Heidi, meanwhile, didn’t look good, figuratively or literally. Flushed, sweaty and—in his case—with a scraggly beard, the pair were negative testimony to what artistic geniuses the producers of The Hills are. Stage-managed into an L.A. hotspot, framed and lit with honeyed light, and given a pop-music soundtrack, even this pair can seem interesting and tragic. But goggled in the unforgiving flat glare of NBC’s HD cameras—whoo, boy, was the illusion gone. It was like watching a silent-film actor with a bad voice try to adjust to the talkies.
But I’ve done my hitch. Even the prospect of seeing the celebs strapped into a torture chamber with rainforest bugs dancing around their heads is not enough to bring me back. Even professional duty has its limits. Anyone plan on watching again? Correction: anyone else willing to admit having watched in the first place?