‘Gene Simmons Family Jewels’: Hawking History

Gene Simmons Family Jewels has, to this point, been a predictable celebrity family reality sitcom that goes for easy laughs and mundane domestic plotlines. Gene and his family joke their way through plainly prompted: sometimes the banter is funny and sometimes it’s painfully bad. Simmons’ longtime partner Shannon Tweed busts his chops, rocker son Nick tries to follow in his footsteps, and daughter Sophie sweetly rolls her eyes at dad, finding his antics amusing.

This makes it all the more surprising that the sixth season premiere, “Face Your Demons,” is serious. Holocaust serious.

That doesn’t mean that the show loses its fondness for staging encounters and lessons to be learned, say, kids should get to know their parents. At first, that idea seems like an excuse for product placement, that is, the autobiographies Gene and Shannon have recently written. While Gene is certainly intent on hawking books, just as he is always trying to sell KISS commodities, he also has something more on his mind.

Specifically, the story of his own mother, a Holocaust survivor. The topic comes up when Gene is on tour in Amsterdam and bonds with a young local fan, Stephen, who takes him to the Anne Frank house. Moved by the experience, Gene shares his mother’s experiences with Stephen’s family, including the young man’s grandparents, who are Holocaust survivors as well.

Stephen serves a couple of roles here, first, of course, as a Simmons fan, but second, as a young person who’s not his son. As such, he provides an especially attentive listener for Gene, who says repeatedly that his mother was just a teenager when she was taken to a concentration camp, just like Anne Frank.

Gene picks up on this when touring the Anne Frank house, where he and Shannon see the movie star pictures the 14-year-old tacked to the walls in her room, images of 1930s and ’40s celebrities like Shirley Temple. Shannon later tells Sophie,

I was struck by what a probably normal teenager she was. On the wall, there were pictures of movie stars and the clippings from movie magazines. Like as if we tore something out of the pages of People or Us or something and just stuck up our favorite celebrities. And it was just so… normal.

As Shannon expresses surprise, Gene offers an explanation, that the seemingly inconsequential world of music and movie stars can serve as a kind of lifeline for people in desperate situations, an inspiration or a sign that life continues in another place. Sitting with Shannon back home, Gene insists, “It makes you realize that sometimes what you think is unimportant is one of the few bits of happiness that people around the world have to latch onto.” While he sounds self-serving — a point underscored by his self-important nod at the camera as he finishes speaking — it’s also true.

It’s true too that different types of media can provide comfort, construct memories, and forge communities. The episode makes this clear during a scene in Amsterdam, when Stephen’s grandpa remembers discovering a film of his mother, who died in the Holocaust. The home movie allowed him to show his own children and grandchildren images of the woman they would never meet. Seeing her “on TV” helped them to share memories with him. The episode includes as well several scenes from Gene’s home movies of his own mother, which help his kids understand her and his feelings for her.

Gene’s mother’s story has been taken a next step. When he revealed what happened to her in his book, some fans started a Facebook page in her honor, called The Flora Army. Nick tells us this development was surprising but “very cool.” His delight at seeing peers embrace his grandmother on Facebook speaks to how this social media platform functions as a space for fans to express admiration for her and build their own sense of community, as they bear witness to her story virtually.

The episode makes visible efforts to move a young audience, to spark their empathy for Gene, Stephen, and Anne Frank. Even though his tour around Amsterdam with the fan is obviously staged (Stephen shows up already miked), this doesn’t matter as much as Gene’s convincing emotion when he tells his mother’s story, his grief for her hardship and his expression of love for her.

Don’t get me wrong. Gene is still hamming it up during this episode, a walking rock star cliché. At the concert, Gene, in full Beast kabuki-style make-up, tells Stephen that their time together has been very thought-provoking, but he can’t seem to help himself when he announces, “Tonight is going to be for rock.” It’s as if he’s timed how much seriousness his TV audience can stand, and he’s got to get back in gear before anyone channel surfs away.

It’s old news that Gene has recycled stereotypes of rock star virility all the way to the bank. Showcasing his ridiculous gender politics, he licks his lips at the Amsterdam red-light district and informs us that his check-in names at hotels range from “James Bond” to “Pat McGroin.” He provides a moment of particularly poor taste when, as is his custom, he signs the capital “S” in his name as a money sign (part of a trademark he owns), in the guest book at the Anne Frank house.

But the fact that Gene is a consummate huckster doesn’t negate the other messages in this episode. This reality TV show asks young viewers to think about the Holocaust by showing how it has affected a reality TV character.

RATING 8 / 10