As much as I (still) love The Osbournes, we do have to place blame squarely on them for launching the most unfortunate of new television genres: the celebrity reality “sitcom.” Ozzie, Sharon, Kelly, and Jack begat The Anna Nicole Show. Airing on E! and now in its second season, Anna has become even more tedious than last year. Anna Nicole Smith has lost any sympathy she once engendered due to her utter self-absorption. She and her motley, insular group of hangers-on, roaming around their under-furnished Hollywood mansion, are morphing into West Coast version of Grey Gardens.
Apparently, since you can’t have too much of a bad thing, in the wake of the Smith show, E! launched The Michael Essany Show, built around the talents of a 20- year-old who hosts his own talk show out of his parents’ living room in Indiana. It’s a one-joke enterprise, and any humor or irony in having a suburban kitchen pass for the “green room” wears thin immediately. More troubling is Essanay’s schmaltzy persona. Slick and trying too hard to be “grown up,” he comes across like a creepy child prodigy. Fixated on and inspired by Johnny Carson, Essany has adopted the worst qualities of the former King of Late Night: clichéd mannerisms and a faux sincerity that make his show (and the show-within-a-show) seem a parody of itself.
“Slick” and “self-parody” bring us to Chuck Woolery and his new series, Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned, on the Game Show Network. As so many reality shows are game shows, it’s mildly ironic that the one network devoted solely to game shows has patterned its first reality-inspired program not after the obvious reality-game hybrids, Survivor or Big Brother, but after
Woolery, an ex-singer/songwriter (the show’s odd title comes from a 1968 rock ditty Woolery wrote and recorded), was the original host of Wheel of Fortune, then Love Connection, Scrabble, and Greed. Currently, he’s hosting Lingo on the Game Show Network. He’s obviously the star of Stoned, supported by his pretty third wife, Teri Nelson (by the way, the granddaughter of that other TV Ozzy, Ozzie Nelson), and four of his eight children and stepchildren.
It’s unclear what prompted the network to pick Woolery for this series, other than the chance to promote Lingo. (I mean, who was clamoring to learn more about the guy who used to go to commercials saying, “Two and two”?) It’s also unclear whether nothing goes on at the Woolerys’ house or the kids run for cover every time they see the camera, but we haven’t seen too much of them. We have, however, seen lots and lots of Chuck: Chuck on the set of Lingo, Chuck getting his makeup done, Chuck at a Game Show Network photo shoot, Chuck at another Game Show Network photo shoot.
This too-much-Chuck is a problem. Without a built-in curiosity factor (say, the Prince of Darkness as doting husband and father), Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned is left with Woolery mugging for the camera or behind the scenes hijinks at Lingo. Neither is interesting enough to fill 30 minutes of TV. In apparent anticipation of this problem, according to an article in TV Guide, the series’ producers are manufacturing situations for Woolery. Even that would be fine if Woolery was dynamic enough to make said situations comic, or some Seinfeld-ian celebration of the mundane. Unfortunately, he’s not.
In an ostensible effort to enliven the proceedings, the show offers snippy, postmodern commentary, not unlike the little voices that ABC lays over the clips on America’s Funniest Home Videos, or the voiceover potshots aimed at Toni Basil or Flock of Seagulls on various VH1 retrospectives. Sadly, in Naturally Stoned, the effect is intrusive and heavy-handed, trying too hard to spoon-feed amusement to the viewer.
Trying too darn hard is Woolery’s downfall too. He comes across as far too aware of the cameras being on him. Say what you want about Ozzy’s on-stage performance skills, but he doesn’t demonstrate the need to “perform” for the cameras on his reality show; he doesn’t look like he needs to be the center of attention. Woolery does. He has a smarmy, show-bizzy slickness, and looks a little too entertained by himself. And in the end, he’s the only one who is.
(Thank you to my friend Mike Heintz for his thoughts and insights, which contributed to this review.)