The Anna Nicole Show

What is she on? Not what channel, what drugs? After watching the premiere episode (4 August) of the E! channel’s endlessly hyped “reality sitcom,” The Anna Nicole Show, starring Anna Nicole Smith, that seems to be the only question worth asking. Slurring her words, moving in slow motion, and often tripping over her own feet, America’s most famous almost-wealthy widow has got to be medicated, and heavily.

If further proof is needed, compare the Anna Nicole of the Anna Nicole Show with the earlier clips of her on the E! True Hollywood Story, which aired right before the “sitcom” debuted on Sunday. In older clips, showing her on the witness stand and elsewhere, Smith is far less whiny and fuzzy-headed; she is sometimes almost eloquent. And on occasion, when speaking directly to the camera in the new reality series, she does seem close to coherent.

For the most part, however, she is not anywhere near coherent. Which makes you wonder: what happened? Perhaps fame — or at least infamy — is the ultimate drug. I blame The Osbournes. After the MTV phenom that is the f—king foursome of Ozzy, Sharon, Kelly, and Jack, the celebrity-driven reality show has made it possible for the famous to extend their 15 minutes without having to actually, you know, do anything; they can just “be themselves.” And their spouses, kids, and closest friends and hangers-on all get to become famous too, not because they have any great talent, but by simple fact that they too are on TV. Famous for being famous.

Welcome to Zsa Zsa Land, where the de facto mayor is former Guess? girl Anna Nicole. In her first episode, she’s moving into a new house, much like the Osbournes in their first episode. (Formula: the last refuge for the clueless.) Unfortunately, the similarities between The Osbournes and Anna largely end there. The big difference being that we are laughing with the Osbournes, not at them. While Ozzy himself (a walking, living, breathing PSA to keep your brain off drugs) may not have been totally in on the joke, we knew that Sharon (a savvy Mother Earth) and the kids knew exactly how they were coming across — that they were the most loving, amusingly eccentric brood on TV since the Addams Family. If The Osbournes delivers a message (not that it has to), it is that any type of family, be it blended, multi-racial, or heavy metal, can be functional. In many ways, despite the tattoos and the devil heads on the walls, the Osbourne family (for better or worse) isn’t that different from some of ours: the kids fight, the dogs mess on the carpet, and dad can’t work the remote.

By contrast, The Anna Nicole Show asks us to laugh at, not with, its pitiable subject. Consider E!’s promo line: “It’s not supposed to be funny. It just is.” Well, first of all, it’s not that funny, and, second, that very phrase implies that, no, Anna is not in on her own joke; she just doesn’t seem to know how dumb and sad she looks.

Case in point: in a limo on the way to a party, Anna decides to inquire on the crisis in the Middle East. “Who’s killing the Jews?” she asks. After hearing about suicide bombers from her ever-present lawyer, she responds, “Why would they do that? Don’t they think it was kinda painful?” Now, no one was expecting Anna Nicole to launch into a long speech filled with political, religious, and historical insight, but her ignorance of this and all other issues only underlines her complete, utter, unmitigated self-absorption.

Even that wouldn’t have to be disastrous. Successful comedy is often built on a character’s extreme superficiality — think Joan Rivers and Sandra Bernhard in their stand-up personas or Karen (Megan Mulally) from Will & Grace. But with these performers and characters, we know it’s just an act. With Anna Nicole, we’re not so sure.

Whether due to superficiality, stupidity or medication, Smith certainly seems to live in a world all her own. During her house hunt, Anna helps herself to some sliced watermelon in the current owner’s refrigerator! Upstairs, she throws herself onto a bed and sort of dry-humps it. Then she climbs into the bathtub, even though the realtor tells her it’s kind of dirty. “That’s okay,” Anna replies. “I like dirty tubs.” As if Robert Blake and the O’Neals hadn’t already, Anna Nicole has now proved beyond doubt that you can have lots and lots of money, and absolutely no class.

Later, when this “dream home” turns out to be too pricey for the still-in-litigation diva, Anna breaks down, weeping her way back outside. Her companions on this lookie-loo, the lawyer and punky personal assistant, pay little attention to her tears or tantrum. One wonders just how often she indulges into such histrionics if those around her don’t even notice anymore.

Even more disturbing is Smith’s truly bizarre conversation with her 16-year-old son, Daniel, who, from the little we see of him in this first episode, seems normal enough. (And how did that happen?) It is the only interaction between mother and son during the half hour — and it’s over the phone! Though Daniel is almost grown, Smith speaks to him in a voice so babyish and squeaky it would make Melanie Griffith want to plug her ears. “Do you love mommy more than all the raindrops in the world and all the fishes in the sea?” Anna pleads.

Oh. My. God.

Say what you want about the Family Osbourne, the parents are plainly the parents and the kids are the kids. For Anna Nicole and Daniel, the roles are reversed, a situation that can be funny in a traditional, stakeless sitcom (Family Ties, Silver Spoons, etc.), but in this context, is just distressing.

Equally depressing is Anna Nicole’s obvious grasping at a last chance. Ozzy Osbourne is far from a has-been; he still records and tours every summer. Though some of Ozzy’s hardcore metal cred may have been lost when longtime fans saw him wandering aimlessly around his own house like a dim-witted Ozzie Nelson, other viewers no doubt found that the man they had previously only known as the one who bit the head off of a bat, is really a very caring and involved parent. The Prince of Darkness isn’t so dark after all. And Ozzfest, now in its seventh year, is getting more publicity than ever before; it is quite possible that, after 20 some years in the music business, Ozzy Osbourne, entertainer, is attaining his widest fame and acclaim. Ozzy ascends.

By contrast, Anna Nicole Smith — as her series so painfully documents — is still descending. Granted, her fame was never substantive to begin with. Yes, there were the iconic Guess? Jeans ads and the Playboy associations, but these did not launch her into a lucrative modeling career. Nor did any sort of acting career take off: she did one direct-to-video movie, Skyscraper (anyone see it? didn’t think so) and a few TV guest appearances, including Ally McBeal. Beyond that, her body of work makes Pamela Anderson’s look like Dame Maggie Smith’s.

Episode number one shows Ms. Smith attending a Guess? anniversary party, an event that smacked of a pathetic last hurrah, like Norma Desmond returning to the gates of Paramount. Whether she knows it or not (and I would bet she doesn’t), Anna seems to be channeling, continuing the legacy of so many previous tragic blond bombshells. She has the naïvete of a Marilyn Monroe (without the charm); the desperation of a Jayne Mansfield; and, most sadly, the self-destructiveness of ’50s B-movie star Barbara Payton. Since E! wasn’t there to film the last days of Marilyn, Mansfield or Payton, the channel seems positively thrilled to be able record and expose Anna Nicole’s every embarrassing, clumsy last step.

So, just when you think reality tv couldn’t get any uglier, it has. In a previous PopMatters review, of Big Brother 3, I compared it to a ten-car pile-up that you can’t help but watch. Well, I should have referred to it as a ten-car pile-up where no one gets hurt. For, as soon as we see stretchers, bandages, and blood, we almost always turn away; this, we don’t want to see. E!’s Anna Nicole Show feels more like that sort of horror: we’re witnessing someone (whether she knows it or not) getting hurt. And we should all just turn away.