“Muncie, Indiana,” intones the narrator of Armed & Famous, “A world away from Hollywood.” To illustrate, the show provides a smattering of small-towny images juxtaposed with big urban excess: a squirrel munches a nut as a car screeches off in some background. Local, farmer-looking fellows watch a limousine whoosh by. Yep, they nod patiently, those would be the city folks.
But not just any city folks. These are rich, self-important has-beens and never-weres, the B- and C-listers whose troubled pasts and well-known “attitudes” are sure to make them entertaining objects of derision. However much the show trumps up Muncie’s country-ness, the point is to underline the stars’ definitive offensiveness. One by one, each describes his or her reason for being in this program (and none says he’s doing it for money or for yet another chance at limelight). Erik Estrada juts his chin just a little and confesses, “As a child, I had the desire to be a cop. I’ve had some preparation from my days of CHiPs, but that was make believe. This is the real deal.” Make that the reality TV deal.
Also offering herself up for scrutiny, “recording artist and author” La Toya Jackson (for whom I confess an abiding affection) sashays through fog and cruiser lights, her black uniform bulky but weirdly sexy too, her black headband recalling her aerobics instructing days. After a couple of old cheesecakey La Toya shots, a cowboy-hatted La Toya speaks: “All my life, I’ve wanted to do two things. I’ve wanted to work at McDonalds and I’ve always wanted to be a police officer.” Is she lying or what?
Titled “Never Thought I’d Get Handcuffed by a Jackson,” the first episode of Armed & Famous is suitably campy and sentimental, granting its celebreality stars some all-important opportunities to surprise the rest of us: they’re not-bad cadets. (Given the usual trajectory of reality shows, you might imagine theirs will not be a consistent display of good works and altruism.) The show is more like Celebrity Fit Club than Flavor of Love, asking its stars to tone down rather than act out. It’s disturbing but it’s not ugly.
Following their emergence from their sleek stretch limo into the glare of Muncie daylight, the five celebrities will, the voiceover asserts, become “actual police officers.” During their first few days in Muncie, the newbies learn to “protect and serve,” carefully observed by their trainers. Sgt. Rick Eber cracks wise as soon as they file into his classroom. They’ll have to meet “real standards,” he says, whatever that means. Looking directly at Jason Wee-Man Acuña, “Jackass around here and you’ll see where it gets ya.” Urgh. (Similarly informed that she “can’t sing and dance [her] way out of this one,” La Toya marvels: “Wow! They don’t play!”)
Wee-Man does not, in fact, “jackass around” during his training. He even earns an “excellent” when he practices “vehicle stops, pulling over a motorist and disarming him inside his car. (Looking on, La Toya confesses, “I’m not physical. I don’t like falling on the ground.”) And just so you don’t think Wee-Man has wimped out to be a cop, he spends an evening at a local bar, whooped and hollered at by a crowd of bare-chested, beer-drinking fans: “Everybody here knows that I’m here to take police work seriously, right!?” he asks. “I also take partying seriously!” His life change may take more effort than this show.
Turns out that my girl La Toya is among the sharpest shooters of the group. She means to prove herself; a phone conversation with her brother — his voice-only identified as “Jackie Jackson”) suggests how much she wants to show her “other side”: “Why can’t you see me being a police?” she asks, her voice rising plaintively. She adds, “Don’t tell mother,” because she wants to surprise the family with her newfound skills. (Their conversation is unnecessarily subtitled, making La Toya seem even more “foreign” than she might otherwise.)
Though La Toya swears she’s never handled a gun before, she bulls-eyes her target repeatedly, earning huzzahs from her instructor and her fellows, including expert (who knew?) shooter Jack Osbourne (introduced as from The Osbournes, because the show is his claim to celebrity). He says he’s come to test his mettle, that is, to bask in “the brotherhood, the camaraderie, the danger” of copdom. He also wants to show off his new svelte form, now that he’s no longer “a lazy overweight drug addict.” (He also says he shot his sister when he was eight, by way of describing his experience with guns.)
Jack does look great, certainly more convincing as a do-gooder than “seven-time WWE Wrestling champion Trish Stratus, who introduces herself by saying she wants to “kick ass and take names: Stratusfaction guaranteed!” While the other “real cops” encounter dicey situations during their first nights out among the population, Stratus comforts a family whose house and Christmas tree have burned down. As the dad, mom, and kids look mostly dazed, she asks for a hug and then tells us how much it meant to her to be able to be the “counselor.”
Stratus does take the 50,000 volt tasering like a “total boy,” but she’s not nearly so entertaining as Ponch’s big Shatneresque scene. (As Jack Osbourne explains, it’s illegal to carry a taser in Indiana unless you’ve been tasered, a law that sounds like it opens up all kinds of windows for taserees without badges.) But again it’s La Toya who entertains best, eating in a restaurant without tablecloths (“At home I eat at Spagos, I eat at Mr. Chows. In Muncie, I’m learning to adjust”) and getting so rough with her “physical tactics” that she has Jack whining, “La Toya’s scaring the hell out of me!” You kind of hope her family is watching, that they’ll be scared, that they’ll treat her right. Otherwise, she might have to start handcuffing them.