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Just try to look away

The main draw for Roseanne Barr's new reality series is watching a once-great comic's further descent into celebrity excess.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 3, 2003

If you've watched TV at all, you know the type.

I call them Celebregotists: notables who seem to believe they have a divine right to the world's attention - convinced by agents, fans and hangers-on that anything they might do is worthy of publication or broadcast, regardless of quality or reason.

And thanks to the newest trend in reality TV, exploiting burned-out celebrities - a la The Anna Nicole Show, I'm With Busey, Star Dates and I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! - the worst of these offenders now have a new forum.

Actors who haven't even made a used car commercial in years are suddenly pimping themselves in what seems to be the last show biz stop before the land of nostalgia autograph conventions and strip mall openings.

Into this morass now steps an artist I once respected: Roseanne Barr (she's back to her old last name) with her new ABC "reality" series, The Real Roseanne Show.

Ostensibly organized to document the development of her ABC Family cooking show Domestic Goddess (and to serve as a not-so-subtle advertisement for the September series), the reality show instead documents the devolution of one of TV's finest talents - enabled by a respected documentary filmmaker, The War Room's R.J. Cutler, whose forays into reality TV have increasingly sullied his artistic reputation.

"I want you guys to get me back on TV," Barr bellows at her entourage early in the program, living down to the caricature of unhinged, past-her-prime indulgence that has filled tabloid news stories for years. "You'll think of something to do."

The group she's assigned this task includes a longtime "writer," Drew (since she hasn't had a TV show in years, it's unclear just what he's been writing); Internet-pen-pal-turned-live-in-boyfriend Johnny (he writes children's songs); son Jake and son-in-law Jeff (whose biggest contribution is a plastic-sword fight in the hall of Mommy's production company); and an agent she hired mostly because he's an Arab.

No wonder she almost uses a rabbi's face analyzing technique to pick her cooking show's executive producer.

This collection of hangers-on and relatives (Barr's also hired her first husband, Bill Pentland, to serve as a handyman) seems largely ineffective as producers, deciding she should make some sort of cooking show like a "white trash Martha Stewart."

But they make great reality TV characters, filling meetings with endlessly inane chatter and outrageous behavior.

A psychoanalyst would have a field day with this footage: Does Barr keep so many relatives and friends on her payroll to control them? Does she realize how much she has built up the chaos that regularly rips through her life?

(One irony in the group's search for an executive producer: Barr is the only one among her crew who has executive produced a hit TV show, yet she constantly tries to make others choose a producer until their ineptitude forces her hand.)

Most importantly, why does a person who claims to be searching for truth surround herself with so much malarkey?

Eventually, during the face analyzing, even Johnny feels compelled to call Barr on her nonsense. When the Internet boyfriend stands as the voice of reason, you know there's a serious problem.

During a recent press conference with TV critics in Los Angeles, Barr remained vague about her motivations, veering from noncommittal answers to acerbic one-liners.

"I just want to go around, like, examining the things that make me mad and eating," Barr said. "Food's a great equalizer between people. I like to go to different ethnic people's houses and eat their food and, like, thereby promote world peace."

Isn't she concerned that fans may watch The Real Roseanne Show just to see how screwed up she really is?

"There's thousands of things that have embarrassed me every day (during filming), but I thought I should lay it out because ... why not? I'm not in a beauty contest," she said. "I'm not cool with (being screwed up). ... I'm trying to change it all the time."

Cutler said Barr's efforts to keep her dark side in check form a consistent subtext in the series. But the real reason viewers will watch is to see a rich, irritating public figure's foibles exposed - like a frog pinned to a dissection table.

In the end, ABC's series reveals a once-great comic who now stands nearly paralyzed - both because she's surrounded by a cadre of well-meaning, know-nothing sycophants and because she doesn't trust her own creative instincts.

Besides starring in a lame reality TV show, that's the true sign of creative death in Hollywood. And The Real Roseanne Show's excavation of this sorry circumstance is the only reason to tune in to this televised train wreck.

AT A GLANCE

The Real Roseanne Show debuts at 9 p.m. Wednesday with two half-hour episodes on WFTS-Ch. 28. Grade: B.

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