Blame Ozzy Osbourne. In 2002, The Osbournes became a cultural phenomenon, grafting the reality genre onto actual celebrities, rather than just turning previously unknown people into pseudo-celebrities. In the process, a washed up, drug-addled rock star got a complete image makeover, turning overnight into a warped but likeable sitcom dad who needed a little help with the remote control. Parents still weren’t going to ask him to babysit for their own kids, but at least they weren’t afraid he was inducing them to worship Satan.
Agents and publicists throughout Hollywood saw endless opportunities: suddenly, all those former celebrities who couldn’t get jobs were untapped resources. But Ozzy’s transformation from dope-head to dopey dad also demonstrated the dangers of reality TV for its subjects. Did he really want to be more relevant to the cultural conversation as a reality star than a musician?
In the years that followed, few if any celebrities benefited from such exposure the way the Osbournes did. Most of the time, reality shows did little more than reinforce negative images (as happened to Jessica Simpson, known forever now as a blonde airhead) or shine a harsh spotlight on a slow moving train wreck (most tragically in the case of Whitney Houston). Many successful stars stayed away, having better things to do, leaving the genre to their B-, C- and D-list brethren.
The shows associated with these folks have always had more than a whiff of desperation to them, a means to the drug called fame, however petty and embarrassing. Why else would they would allow themselves to be put through this wringer? Yes, some have needed the money, but no one could ever believe such a show was “good,” either as entertainment or therapy. At some point, celebrities (and their agents and publicists) mst have realized that they weren’t getting the results they might have hoped for. (Turns out that notoriety doesn’t always translate into success. Go figure.)
If we might still find Meatloaf yelling at Gary Busey on Celebrity Apprentice, the rules of the celebrity reality game have changed, in large part thanks to the success of Dancing with the Stars. This show casts the familiar assortment of second-tier celebrities, but instead of just watching them struggle through their actual lives, it gives them something to do. They dance, which is not always pretty, but they get to do what made most of them famous in the first place, which is perform. And most of them come out looking better because of it.
Into this new environment—which includes the good effects of The Voice and the revamped American Idol—comes Same Name. The concept is simple – a celebrity and an ordinary person who share the same name switch places for a couple days. It’s The Prince and the Pauper with cameras rolling.
The first episode introduces a not-famous David Hasselhoff from small town Texas to the Hoff. Famous Hasselhoff is a safe choice for the show, but not one that bodes well for it. He has always struggled to stay on the B-list in the U.S., though he has had A-list moments as a singer in Europe. And he’s already gone the reality route as a competitor on Dancing with the Stars and a judge on America’s Got Talent.
Famous Hasselhoff moves in with not-famous Hasselhoff’s family. He cleans out an industrial tank. He helps mow a lawn as part of the family business. Though he says he works really hard, it never seems like that’s really true. Famous Hasselhoff goes to a series of other staged events with other family members, and by the end he says that he has grown to love them. Pretty much the story arc we expect.
Clearly, the intent is to show how down to earth the Texas family is. And how generous and real Hasselhoff is. Neither can be completely true, though they succeed more at the first. When famous Hasselhoff gives the Texas family some parting gifts, including new lawnmowers for the business and a college scholarship for the baby, it is hard not to feel that these things will make a real difference in this ordinary family’s life. But it’s hard to believe that these gestures are anything more than a publicity stunt for famous Hasselhoff, despite his tears at the end.
Not-famous Hasselhoff’s trip to L.A. is a better story. Not because famous Hasselhoff’s life is so wonderful, but because it seems so lonely. Famous Hasselhoff has a big house and lots of staff to cook and clean for him, as well as an agent, a manager, and a personal trainer. But nothing seems genuine. Family members are trotted out too, but they seem uncomfortable to be dragged onto the show.
The L.A. portion of the show reveals that the experience is not truly a swap of daily experiences. Not-famous Hasselhoff is not given access to famous Hasselhoff’s life or even a reasonable facsimile of it. It is more like he has been taken on a multi-day guided tour of the Hasselhoff museum. At the end of the episode, not-famous Hasselhoff earnestly says that he really admires celebrities now and that they earn everything they’ve got. The statement sounds like a contractual obligation, required to allow his family to keep the lawn mowers.
It is hard to know what Same Name will be like week to week. Some celebrities will surely offer better material to edit than Hasselhoff, famous and not. Future episodes promise encounters with Reggie Bush, Kathy Griffin, and Mike Tyson. Tyson in particular may bring just enough crazy to the table to tip the genre scales back to train wreck.
But for famous Hasselhoff, unlike, say, Ozzy Osbourne, this show isn’t going to make many people see him in a different light (or buy his albums). Honestly, not-famous Dave summed up the feeling most viewers will have watching the show when he says, “This is weird.”