Catch a Fallen Star

E!’s Star Dates features has-beens and the people who want to date them.

Hey HEY hey! Rerun gets another showing

Want to date a celebrity? Go to E!’s Star Dates Web site, and select your ideal type: Men in Berets, Funny Girls, Bunker Buddies, Space Cadets, Last-Minute Cuties, Mountain Folks, Disco Ducks, or Carrottops.

Blindly choosing a phrase is passing fun, though the lyrical list, it turns out, is a fake-out. The opaque groupings aren’t general categories from which a match will be chosen; they’re exact pseudonyms. Choose Disco Ducks, and you’ll only end up with Deney Terrio, the host of Dance Fever from 1979 to 1985. Last-Minute Cuties will get you Robbie Rist, the floppy man-child who played Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch. Funny Girl turns up Debra Wilson from Mad TV. The Space Cadet is Richard Hatch, who was once an astronaut on Battlestar Galactica. Carrottop is the former pop star Tiffany. Mountain Folk is Mary McDonough from The Waltons. Men in Berets is Fred Berry, or Rerun from What’s Happening! Bunker Buddies is Jimmie “J.J. Evans” Walker from Good Times. Dyn-o-mite.

This underdesigned Web game, which does not pretend to create compatible couples, is at odds with what is in fact the show’s infernally precise method of matchmaking. Star Dates, whose second season premiered June 29, brings together people who are very odd in very similar ways. In one corner are lonely former minor stars; in the other are people who applied for blind, televised dates with them. What a perfect combination! No, Jdate, or Friendster could produce such idiosyncratically compatible couples.

In just a few episodes of Star Dates, what stands out is the congeniality of the pairings. Presided over by a nice chauffeur and chaperone named Reggie Gaskins—a theater actor for whom dating “ain’t about all this bling-bling and yo-what’s-up how-you-feeling-shorty, it’s about being real, being true, but most importantly, being a gentleman”—the dates go smoothly, sweetly, uneventfully. Each star goes on two dates per show, most of which involve L.A. adventures like surfing or target shooting. Gaskins asks the star and the dates for their impressions at regular intervals. In response, they come up with variations on “he’s great.”

Why is it all so easy here? The unfamous prospect arrives ready for anything—and, though the celebrity may begin the date with a shadow of “How did it all come to this?” about the eyes, he or she inevitably relaxes into the role. The pair share a world-weary laugh about the improbability of true love, and, at the end of the date, they part with a hug.

As he drives the couples around, Gaskins monitors the success of the dates in his rear-view mirror; he provides commentary for the audience, noting periods of awkwardness or silence, approving of suave plays. He raises an eyebrow when someone—like Tiffany’s date, who blurts out that he likes to strip—gets ungentlemanly. In his role as host of a new show, Gaskins, with his good cheer and his way of handling all of the stars as if they were elderly, seems like an emissary from a world of greater ambition and hope—a world where people who are not has-beens still believe in success and love and don’t yet resort to dating on Star Dates. Not having much luck making the dates sexy with his light innuendo, he instead watches out for the comfort of the women and the confidence of the men, giving periodic pep talks.

The men seriously need protecting. Men like Fred Berry and Jimmie Walker, who played clowns in their youth, manifest a romantic ache. Is it possible they forfeited their chance for love by flaunting their comic physical proportions and appearing in circus clothes? Berry does not appear to entertain the idea; his beret, he insists, was part of his wardrobe long before What’s Happening! Walker, on the other hand, now skips tight vests and a rainbow palette in favor of Structure-style shirts and slacks. He’s a gentle and solidly built man whose goofiness has largely faded. (He refuses, winningly, ever to shout “dyn-o-mite.”) But, never having married, Walker also has low expectations for himself as a romantic lead. To his date, Stella, a muscular stand-up comic, he laments the fact that women don’t ask him out. And he tells Reggie, “You’ll never win a woman over. She doesn’t dig you, she doesn’t dig you. That’s it.” He doesn’t even try to kiss his dates goodnight.

Tiffany gets a little more action. One of the world’s purest one-hit wonders, she still keeps herself in So-Cal shape, with high-contrast chunk-streaked hair and wondrously lucid skin. Her dates include an Australian guy who likes, more or less, to party. He seems rich; they go surfing; he gives her a back rub; she likes him. That one looks like the most persuasive match so far this season. Tiffany’s next date is a slacker musician who hardly says a word, except that he liked to strip. Reggie doesn’t like him; he won’t play the gentleman for the camera. Tiffany assures everyone she had a good time.

The Nordic good looks of Leif Garrett—teen pop idol, Tiger Beat favorite—have taken some hits since his heyday in the 1970s, but he’s got a hippie-bearish vibe that Reggie calls groovy. Something about Garrett’s red eyes and swollen face, however—as well as his genuinely impressive discography (11 albums), which I found on a fan site along with a list of semistar turns in film (33) and on television (65)—reminded me that celebrity is short, but work is long. All of these ministars have been putting in the hours for decades; they’re tired. That’s another thing they have in common with the love-seeking people who come on the show to date them. Maybe it’s this note of resignation that makes Star Dates appealinglywinsome, if not very steamy. As Jimmie Walker said at the end of his kissless date with a pretty, middle-aged hippie named Darby, “I appreciate her giving me as much time and thought as she did.” This, from J.J.! It kind of breaks your heart.