Sunday, July 17, 2005

TV Review: The Bull of Malibu

So reality TV that treats women as dithering fools finally decides to take a look at two pampered, pretty boys? It debuted last Sunday and you know your critics were front and center waiting to see how it played out.

The title's The Princes of Malibu. The channel is Fox. The focus is the pampered two-some Brody and Brandon Jenner. Young men (adults, we don't criticize physical children, though mental ones in adult bodies sometime get their comeuppance) have been living with their mother Linda Thompson and their step-father David Foster. Theme: It's been a free ride, as the grown men have dabbled in college while spending money without holding down a job.

Disclosure, one of us has encountered Linda Thompson a few times. In terms of reality versus "reality" on the show, we'll note that she's smarter than she comes off in the TV show. To know what Thompson is thinking, the show should have filmed her with a friend. (No, neither of us is auditioning for the job!) Instead, she's shown trying to smooth the waters which appears in keeping with the real Thompson. However, she is also a smart woman who, when given the opportunity to speak without being cut off, has much to say.

David Foster comes off onscreen like the rudest man in the world. We're not doubting that Brody and Brandon are a handful nor are we suggesting that he go easy on them (more on that in a bit) but we're a bit taken aback by the screaming, stomping and yelling we're seeing onscreen which goes far beyond someone at the end of their rope.

We think that a better, more realistic show could have been done focusing on a lyricist Foster's worked with -- a lyricist married to a woman who's both a horror and a hypochondriac. Want easy laughs? Put a camera in front of that woman. Anyone missing Omarosa would eagerly tune in only to find out that Omarosa was, at best, difficult and not horrible.

It's weird to watch this "reality show" when you've encountered one of the people involved. It's especially weird when you see the person (Thompson) and realize that such a huge part of who she is doesn't make it to your TV screens. Throughout the week, we would ask people who'd seen the show what did they think of Thompson? Onscreen, she's a caricature for "wishy-washy" and "unable to make up her mind." That's the general feeling among people who've watched the show. We think this goes to the problem with "reality television."

We're not going into any personal details on Thompson. But we are going to note that reality wouldn't present Thompson through the eyes of only males. (Though "reality television" is happy to do so.) We are going to note that whole aspects of who she is (including who she is as a mother) don't fit with the narrative that's going up onscreen.

The show has a point of view and it's not Thompson's. It's not the "princes" (though they're the stars of the title). It may be David Foster's but it's obviously Fox's point of view and it fits in with the stereotypes reality TV too often promotes. We will note, for anyone thinking this is Thompson's point of view, that we have a hard time believing she saw the graphics in the opening and approved of them. Even from the limited view that the show presents of her, it should be obvious to viewers that the little "bits" with Elvis and Bruce Jenner do not fit her personality. (And if any Elvis fans have complaints, they need to direct them at Fox and the people making the show, not at Thompson.)

This is another in a series of authoritarian tales that passes for "reality TV." In this one, Big Step-Daddy is going to lay down the law. And we'll all tune to see how apparently.

Personally, we kind of wish he'd pants Brody and take him over his knee. We're sure that Brody (like everyone else involved in this show) has more to offer than what on the TV screen but he comes off like such an ass in need of direction. And let's be honest, TV needs more male nudity. Even if it is only butt shots. With the mouth on him and the fact that he's an adult, we'd strongly support Foster taking a belt to Brody's heinie.

Brandon? He looks so much like his father (Bruce Jenner) that it's hard to watch him. We wonder how hard it is for Bruce Jenner to watch the show? (We've never met Bruce Jenner.)
An American sports hero who's been held up as an inspiration for many and he's going out in public life as the father to two spoiled brats. (Jenner's not on the show thus far and we've been told he won't be. If that's accurate, it's a smart move for him to keep his distance.)

To fit the framework of the show, Brody and Brandon have to be portrayed as lay around bums. They may very well be that. At one point during the debut, one of them attempts to make the point that they have earned money as musicians. They both have. The show's not interested in that. (Which is why it's "reality" TV.) Does that excuse their living off the funds of Foster and Thompson (and are viewers getting the impression that Thompson has made her own money because she has)? No.

But they are struggling musicians. These two are living the high life off funds from their mother and step-father (and we're guessing some help from Bruce Jenner though we could be wrong on that). No point in working up any tears because, unlike many young musicians, they're not living off Ramen and peanut butter or working a crappy job to make the rent. But the TV Foster is apparently unaware of how difficult it is for musicians. Session work, the kind he found as a teenager, doesn't exist as it once did. Especially for someone like Brody who's a drummer. Note, those drums you hear on jingles and in songs are rarely, in fact, drums. Machines have replaced humans.

It's cheaper. And few people notice. And possibly when your name is David Foster and you get the sound you want regardless of the money required, you're unaware that for most of the current recording scene, musicians aren't always required.

In a Bully Boy economy (read "bad") when machines and outsourcing have resulted in job losses, we're frankly surprised that Foster doesn't come off as more aware of economic realities. The world he broke into no longer exists and if in reality (as opposed to "reality") he doesn't grasp that fact, he's the one most out of tune with the world.

That's not excusing the behavior of Brandon and Brody. Nothing's preventing Foster from sitting them down and breaking the cold, hard news to them. That probably wouldn't fit into the Murdoch theme of "Rah-rah America! The Bull is back!" It might even upset some viewers.

Which should be the point of reality TV. But we're not getting reality, we're getting "reality."

By comparison, Fox's The Simple Life looks positively liberating -- two spoiled airheads stumbling through the world. The message is different here and viewers need to ask themselves why?

We'd argue the message is different because two female airheads can be embraced by a nation but two male airheads are supposed to have gotten careers. If there's a problem with either set of airheads, it goes to the message that they were raised with. But The Princes of Malibu is so determined to sell you the line of "authoritarian father" that it, like the Bully Boy, can't own up to the reality of mistakes.

"My money! My toys!" the Bull roars throughout. It's as though we're watching a "reality" show on the home life of Wall Street's Gordon Gekko. Adult children in Brody & Brandon's set are usually set up with their own apartments, sometimes fashionable apartments, sometimes not. One of the two of us heard repeatedly that the Bull had humiliated himself by doing this series (from people in Foster's own "set"). We're inclined to agree.

What goes up on the screen (a limited view, granted) speaks of ineffective parenting that remains ineffective. There are ways someone in Foster's situation handles things and this isn't how. Due to the differing nature of the fields, people in music are allowed to retain a little more "street" or "common touch" after they make it than those in the movie business. There are whispers that a little too much "street" is coming out of the Bull.

We're sure he'll embarrass himself further but for our money the person who embarrassed his or herself the most on the debut episode was Chaka Khan. "Chaka Who?" caused Chaka Khan to lose it. Sorry to break it to her but she's not a name to most young adults. Her big hit on the pop charts came in 1984. That's twenty-one years ago, Chaka, Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan.

The shocka' was that Chaka thought anyone who wasn't a teenager (at least a teenager) in 1984 should know who she is. She hasn't even been the butt of jokes for years. Her most memorable nonsinging performance came as the non-lead guest on Joan Rivers' attempt at a late night show on Fox -- and memorable only because she was offering (a not present) Donna Mills dating tips. Does Chaka not grasp how long ago that was?

For non R&B audiences (which includes a larger portion of the listening population today due to the fact that rap has overtaken R&B), Chaka Khan is "Chaka Who?" A one hit wonder in their eyes (if they know that much). The sampling of "Ain't Nobody" (a song she did with Rufus) didn't result in headlines for Khan. Nor did a song on Waiting to Exhale. (The best selling album her name's been attached to in years. Think about how long ago Waiting To Exhale actually was and you'll realize how far from the water cooler talk Chaka Khan has wandered.)

But there she was, having a snit fit. Hissing that she was late for a session. Squinting her eyes and ready to lose it at a minute's notice.

Chaka's devotion in recent years to all things Bully Boy hasn't endeared her to us so that moment was probably our favorite of the show. We even created our own little rap:

Chaka Who
Chaka Who
Chaka Who
Cares about you anymore Chaka Who
Cares about you anymore Chaka Who
Everybody say "Who?"
Let me hear you now "Who?"
Chaka Who
Chaka Who
But as we've noted, that was a moment. A strong one, maybe one they could work in every episode? Next time we could see an angry woman scream, "I am Melissa Manchester!" at a group of twenty-somethings and teens and grow enraged when one of them asked, "Melissa Who?" Otherwise, the shows going to revolve around, as this episode did, "Give me back my toys!"

Does Foster think this is good parenting? By all means send the boys packing. But he's not scoring any points for himself as he continues to come off as though he's obsessed with nothing but money. (It also doesn't play well in his "set." One man cracked that he bets Foster haggles over the price of a pack of gum.)

As this "authoritarian theme" plays out, other themes may go unnoticed. Fortunately, we won't overlook them here.

Paris and Nicole sport plenty of skin in their show (their show for now, supposedly Nicole's out -- big mistake) The Simple Life. Brody and Brandon do actually take their shirts off, the camera just isn't interested. Lying by the pool (with their friend), three men are shirtless and we're treated to a wide shot, not a close up. We also quickly move on. Though it's not surprising to see Paris or Nicole walking around in their nighties after waking up, apparently seeing Brody and Brandon strut in their underwear is off limits for The Princes of Malibu.

"Wow!" we hear you exclaim, "A show that doesn't treat people as subject objects." Au contraire, it still happens. To the women. The cameras that are apparently stationed on a crane in Seattle when the guys are disrobed suddenly come to life and zoom in at the car wash featuring bikini clad women. Or to a note a woman with no bottom to her bikini on the back of a man.

Brandon looks just like his father (Bruce Jenner) so we're having a hard time grasping how even an old timer operating a camera wouldn't realize that Brandon's body merits the slow, once over.
Bruce Jenner's looks hardly went without comment "back in the day." The show also ignores Brody's body.

This appears in keeping with the simplistic nature of "reality" TV where men do and women are, where men are what they do and women are what they look like. It also goes to the point we made earlier which is that we're supposed to be delighted by the antics of Paris & Nicole but we're supposed to be embarrassed by the antics of Brody & Brandon.

We're not fans of the spoiled and pampered, but there's a double standard going on. It's there in showing (long shot again) one of the young men diving into the pool, it's their in the constant screaming (by the Bull) about money. Considering the looks on the kids, we're surprised Bull hasn't already suggested that they film their sexual antics to make some quick bucks.

When Thompson's cut off (nearly every time she speaks), that's what she's trying to get at. Not, "Oh, let them live off us all our lives! Come on, Dave, don't be a grouch!" She's getting at the fact that they do need to carry their own weight but that money is not the sole focus of life. (And her own work in other areas demonstrate that belief.) We're having a hard time believing that almost fifteen years later, she and Foster are still married if he doesn't grasp that. We think he does grasp it. We think the people behind the show don't care about it.

Which is why everyone involved should have been suspicious when Fox came sniffing.
This is a train wreck onscreen. Brody and Brandon have already signed modeling contracts (they are good looking) so we're having a hard time believing that any "lesson" will be taught in reality. But we're quite sure that "reality" on our screen will find a way to portray this as resulting from the Bull going on a stampede. Make no mistake, they didn't get their contracts because the Bull laid down the line. They got their contracts because they were going to be on TV and because of who they are. They haven't learned a thing about making it on their own. They've learned that if you're in a certain position, things come to you, you don't work for them.

The way the show plays out, that's "success" in TV Foster's book because all he's concerned about is the money. And we're sure that a happy ending will be stamped on it and we'll all learn that Father Knows Best. Before the final episode comes (we're praying that there's not a second season), we hope that the producers and editors do a better job of getting reality up on screen because what they're featuring isn't "reality." We're also hoping that we see Brody's butt taking a walloping but we know that's a failed hope from reports of the filming (translation, it didn't happen so there's no footage).

That's "reality" television for you. Carefully orchestrated so that no reality intrudes on the "reality." Let's hope the viewers aren't fooled.

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