UPN’s new series has a shot—in the sweepstakes for the worst reality show of all time. It takes insipid voyeurism to new heights, proffering pseudo-celebrity culture (what Kathy Griffin calls the D-list) as a panacea for whatever ails you, whether that’s being displaced by hurricane Katrina, recovering from cancer, or wondering what to do for your birthday.
Judging from the premiere episode, the set-up is both opportunistic and boring. Our hosts are Kristin Cavallari, the rich high school kid from MTV’s Laguna Beach (entering the twilight world of the celebreality hosting circuit), and Ethan Erickson (who looks like a cross between young Mark McGrath and Ryan Seacrest, with a massive helping of even more nondescript vapidity). Turn off the sickly glow of their whitened teeth. Please.
Get This Party Started
Kristin Cavallari, Ethan Erickson
Regular airtime: 7 February 2006
(7 February 2006)
They “surprise” some worthy person each episode with a party thrown in his or her honor. UPN insists the show offers “inspiring stories” and “incredible surprises” for people who have suffered some hardship and thus deserve to party like they’re at a low-rent movie premiere, replete with deeply meaningful gifts like Ugg boots, fashion photos, and Nicky Hilton purses.
The first episode features Arin Jones, who wants to throw a surprise 21st birthday party for her sister Alexis. Both are LSU students who, with their family, are living in a hotel in the wake of Hurricane Katrina while they try to repair their New Orleans home. The camera zooms in to show them tearing up whenever they talk about the storm. We see footage of them back at their badly damaged home.
Saying it would be “good to get away” from their troubles with a birthday party in Las Vegas, Arin arranges with the producers to have Alexis think they’re in a talent competition in Vegas. Instead, they’re flying in about a dozen family and friends for a birthday celebration at the Hard Rock Hotel. This scenario is the premise for the episode, and since we know it from the outset, we’re “in” on the scheme. Can Arin fool her sister for long enough to throw the surprise party? Can the planners get the party arranged in time? Are we going to care at all? We’re supposed to care about the teens—young viewers are obviously encouraged to identify with them—but we don’t learn enough about them. The show is so lazy that we barely get enough characterization to distinguish between different people.
Even at the reveal, the lucky sister has to feign excitement at the underwhelming spectacle of a few friends standing in a poorly decorated, tiny Las Vegas hotel party room. The show’s concern for the family is palpably superficial. Close-ups of Kristin and Ethan show them trying and failing to look at all concerned while interacting with the family. If the show wanted to do something meaningful for the family, it would give them a home makeover à la Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Even a real talent show, with the chance for the sisters to establish career opportunities, would have been better than this.
Even the supposedly scintillating celebrity-style soirée is poorly executed and embarrassingly amateurish, even though the show brings in professional party planners whose eyes glaze over when discussing all the wonderful things they’ve planned. The party is minimal, cheesy, and clunky at best. The previews we see of future episodes seem to indicate more of the same. The highlight of the first episode’s party is, drum roll please… Mardi Gras beads and a chintzy ice sculpture reading “21.”
Get This Party Started cannibalizes elements of other reality shows without conjuring its own identity. Also, it takes the worst elements from other shows, which leaves the quality here decidedly low. The “special treatment” for a family in need obviously comes from Extreme Makeover and its knock-offs, like Three Wishes. All three shows suffer from the same affliction, implying that structural problems—like poverty and opportunity inequities—can be solved by flashy philanthropy and temporary escapism. Shows in this vein imply that possessing the hottest material goods brings meaning to people’s lives, and they actively try to lull audiences into the comfy sense that they’re being sympathetic and supportive just by watching the program. In actuality, especially on this show, nothing substantial has been accomplished.
Other familiar elements from other shows highlight how the other programs do the same thing better. At least MTV’s Sweet Sixteen actually throws imaginative, exceptional parties (one of the episodes we see mentioned in previews for Party is a sweet sixteen party that looks to be depressingly dull). At least Queer Eye for the Straight Guy tries to teach viewers something useful about decorating or hosting. Here, our party tips are self-evident and banal (“Invite best friends!” “Include framed photos!”).
Yes, all reality shows are exploitative and cannibalize other programs. But in Party, this patchwork is especially weak. Unlike its sources, this show offers little to no dramatic tension, making it’s hard to care what happens (the hosts certainly don’t seem to). Picking up on the new trend in reality TV (do good deeds rather than humiliate people), Party is still vacuous and vicarious.