O tempora! O mores! Oh, snap! This week, both TMZ.com and Perez Hilton —two of new media’s most formidable purveyors of old-media scandal—made crossover moves to television. Two small steps for Internet gossip, one great leap forward for the tabloid mentality. The shows are raw and rude, and quick and mean, and right in step with a culture where flashing one’s vagina while exiting a car has evolved into a form of self-expression.
TMZ is syndicated, so check your listings, but do take a moment to appreciate that in New York and Los Angeles, it airs at 6:30 p.m., opposite fair Katie, sun-kissed Brian, and kind-eyed Mr. Gibson. It’s one thing not to watch the network news—200 or 300 million of us do it every night—but to pass up those broadcasts in favor of TMZ really enriches the experience of its attention-deficit delirium. On the Web, TMZ is best known for mass-marketing Michael Richards’ racist comedy-club freakout, blaring the particulars of Mel Gibson’s DUI arrest, and covering the relationship between Paris Hilton and Johnny Law with novelistic detail. Guilt is great for the site, but paparazzi run-ins are pretty good, too, from drunken rages to ultramundane sidewalk shots and whatever else meets the gaze of its omnivorous eye.
Episodes begin with a glimpse of a meeting at which the young mudslingers and muckrakers on staff run through the menu of gourmet gruel that viewers are shortly to digest. The segments unfold in a way so committed to stripping the machinery of public image to its gears—and so gleeful in exposing the workings of tabloid journalism—that the show approaches a, um, post-structuralist endeavor. On Tuesday, we saw a TMZ crew catch up with Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere by a baggage carousel at LAX and seek her opinion of Britney Spears’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. A hostess provided the gum-snapping starlet, who was feeling circumspect, with an interior monologue while we waited for the answer (“Chew, chew, think … Wait! Turn back on interviewer!”), and then well-trained Hayden said, “You guys watched MTV, didn’t ya?”
The story-gathering was the whole story, and all the meaning was in the voyeuristic moment. The content of TMZ goes heavy on hook-up updates, celebrity sonograms, catty commentary on fashion disasters, and footage of Hollywood B-listers humiliating themselves outside of nightclubs. The style is ransom-note chic—collages and montages and Spy-style floating heads. The flavor is intimate hostility.
Meanwhile, Tuesday night’s What Perez Sez About the VMAs—the first installment of a deal between VH1 and gossip blogger Perez Hilton to emit six specials pegged to awards shows—was all about hostile intimacy. Hilton is the nom de spume of one Mario Lavandeira. Have you had the pleasure of “reading” his blog? The dish is not half bad, but, stylistically, his closest antecedent is the bathroom wall. If you were to review his work on its own terms, then you’d bone up on scatology for a while and then deface his portrait.
Though Hilton put in some time on the red carpet at the Video Music Awards—telling Pamela Anderson that she looked “like a lovely whore” and elsewhere making uncountable inquiries about penis size—the bulk of What Perez Sez found him chatting up pop stars in pre-taped interviews. Considering that the man spends a sizable portion of his day drawing digital semen on stolen photographs, his access was excellent. He tried and failed to bake microwave cookies with Amy Winehouse. He asked Eve about the provenance of her hair extensions. He tutored Mandy Moore in the proper use of a stripper pole—”You lick it and then you twirl!”—and then, after Moore had licked and twirled, clapped his fat hands together in plain joy.
I tried hating What Perez Sez, but it proved so fantastically easy to hate as to deny any satisfaction. So, sometime around the second commercial break, I moved on and tried to like it. This was disturbingly easy. The show is Hilton’s bid, a terribly credible one, to become the Barbara Walters of his generation. You relied on Baba to be misty and mawkish and to squeeze tears from celebrity eyes. Perez, meanwhile, was greasy and needy and delighted, in one instance, to elicit a literal fart. This is our culture, and he’s your man.