Tommy Lee Goes to College

by Bill Gibron

16 August 2005

 

Incomplete

Tommy Lee attended classes but was not an enrolled student at UNL. Some elements have been produced and/or edited for comedy. Some scenes were filmed on UNL campus but others were filmed off campus here Tommy lived with his roommate.
—Disclaimer for Tommy Lee Goes to College

It used to be that well-crafted sitcoms and dramas dominated the airwaves. Sure, there was fluff and the occasional foolishness, but for the most part, TV tried to entertain. Now it merely wants to scam. The latest evidence comes in the form of Tommy Lee Goes to College. From the title, one might expect another naughty reality show vérité, similar to the so-surreal-it’s-sensational Being Bobby Brown, or the simply nauseating Britney and Kevin: Chaotic.

cover art

Tommy Lee Goes to College

Cast: Tommy Lee, Natalie Riedmann, Matt Ellis
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET

(NBC)

But this is not the case. Tommy Lee is neither a student nor a spectacle. Instead, he is positioned as an actor in ill-conceived “comic set pieces.” Playing an overprivileged undergrad, Lee is immersed in student life at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He’s not here to learn. He’s here to leer and trade on his still potent heavy metal notoriety. Though he’s not actually working from a script (an annoying narrator cracks wise in a snotty British accent), Lee is definitely guided in how he reacts to certain situations. Shots are carefully selected to create a “fish out of water” saga.

Since it’s supposed to be a comedy, it’s easy to say it has been done before and better. When Rodney Dangerfield (in 1986’s Back to School) makes a more convincing underclassman than one of music’s most flamboyant faces, you know there’s a formidable fly in the primetime ointment. Lee wasn’t even the producers’ first choice. Steve Perry turned down the series before Lee jumped on board. And based on the first two episodes, the ex-Journey frontman made a very wise choice indeed.

Tommy Lee Goes to College misses opportunities so obvious that even inebriated frat boys could see them, and overstates its painfully unfunny ideas relentlessly. By the end of the second episode, we have had the following facts bludgeoned into our skulls: the infamous Motley Crue drummer is completely lost in almost all his classes (especially chemistry), thinks his tutor (Natalie Riedmann) is incredibly hot, and is completely incapable of playing a marching band cadence on the tools of his trade. In other words, no surprises, just clichés.

Lee himself presents another set of problems. Anyone who knows anything about this guy can see that he is a great deal smarter than he appears here. In interviews and other appearances, he comes off as erudite and perceptive, goofy, but grounded nonetheless. The Lee of Goes to College also seems sincere: you can read it in his eyes and hear it in his words. You feel he wants to succeed in this surreal social experiment, and would do everything in his power to make it work.

But the people behind the production don’t want success or earnestness. They want shock and irreverence. They don’t want Tommy in class. They want him in your face. They want the tattooed bad boy who made sex tapes with his wife, played solos upside down in a rotating drum kit, and flaunts his nonconformity everywhere he goes. Too bad Tommy’s not so untamed as all that here. He’s a slightly off-kilter man who is finally getting to experience a world he’s never known (Lee dropped out of high school when Crue hit the big time). Though he might have something to offer his young classmates, the series sets him up so all he’s supposed to do is show them how to party and look perplexed.

Lee appears repeatedly dodging the paparazzi, signing autographs, and responding to his celebrity with humble happiness. That’s not weird enough. So he’s sent to look for a roommate, granting the show a chance to ridicule and label a few students (the nerd, the Asian study-holic, the gay kid). If Tommy Lee Goes to College could challenge “college” stereotypes, we’d have something novel in nu-reality TV. But the series only exploits them. It could have been fun to see Lee pal around with the gay man or get to know the nerd, rather than get his party on with the brew-consuming partner (Matt Ellis) he finally picks.

The creators also pile on the carnal implications, as Lee is saddled with a basic blond bombshell for a tutor, who automatically gets the rocker’s undivided attention. Our tempting tutor doesn’t have a chance to show off her smarts, and in an incredibly crass sequence, she is replaced by a brunette who orders Lee around like he’s a pup who piddled on the carpet. Hot equals helpful, while plain Jane is just a shrew. Not exactly an original “lesson.”

Tommy Lee Goes to College makes higher education look like a series of senseless classes followed by evenings of underage drinking. It makes Tommy Lee out to be an overdressed dullard who fits in by fashioning the concepts of the campus into his own image (the dorm room gets a major league pimpin’, complete with flat screen, kitchen, and drum kit). The series offers only one voice of reason: Tommy’s physics teacher and student mentor, Dr. Gay, sees through Lee and the show, trying to help the rocker emerge from his semester with something to show for it. But it appears a lost cause.

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