Not So Stellar

What Star Jones doesn’t get about women, TV, and women who watch TV.

Star Jones 
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Star Jones

It’s not that anyone really expected Star Jones’ new Court TV vehicle, Star Jones, to be superb programming. This is, after all, a show content with the lofty aspiration to be the next View. Reviewers have been unkind, but the real problem with the show, which debuted last week, has little to do with Star Jones herself. … The truth is that no host could have saved this mess. The program represents an unholy alliance between two fundamental misunderstandings: a cliché about what women want in television married to a cliché about what viewers want from legal programming. The result is the worst of both worlds.

It’s a tale of two makeovers: Star Jones, reinventing herself as skinny and sleek thanks to gastric bypass surgery, and Court TV reinventing itself, yet again, as a reality-television station.

Let’s start with the latter. Court TV has announced that effective January 2008, it is changing its name to TruTV and renewing its focus on reality shows (or what it calls “real life” shows). Over the last few years, Court TV has goosed its ratings by focusing on viewers it calls “Real Engagers”—that is, folks who like “action-based reality shows.” Thus the network’s new lineup will feature less law and more real engagements, including ” ‘Beach Patrol,’ a real-life ‘Baywatch,’ where cameras follow rescue lifeguards” and ” ‘Bounty Girls,’ which chronicles Florida female bounty hunters.”

What any of this has to do with the courts is anyone’s guess, although the network clearly hopes to maintain some lingering connection to the life of the law: The daytime lineup originally included a weekday show featuring Nancy Grace (who has since departed the network) and, of course, Star Jones, who supposedly would bring to bear her impressive experience as a Brooklyn prosecutor while “talking about criminal cases as well as social issues and Hollywood matters.”

Jones actually got her TV start with Court TV in 1991, covering the William Kennedy Smith trial. She would later bring her glittering law-lite sensibility to The View, where she did her thing for nine years before resigning abruptly in June 2006 when she discovered that her contract wasn’t being renewed. Now she brings her legal act to TruTV, and you can’t really blame her for thinking there’s some natural synchronicity between “criminal cases,” “social issues,” and “Hollywood matters”—that’s long been Nancy Grace’s bread and butter. But at least in its first week, Jones’ show concerned itself largely with the depressing legal troubles of famous people we either never cared about or are trying to forget having ever cared about (“Is Screech’s sex tape illegal?” “Is Britney going to lose custody of her children?”).

We know that Jones is treating these matters as questions of law—as opposed to just celebrity gossip—because she brings three important legal tools to the enterprise. First, she has acquired, pursuant to her personal makeover, a pair of Sober Young Mind eyeglasses. Second, she occasionally talks about the law, as when she soberly lectured her nodding guests about how the sentencing guidelines will affect Michael Vick. Finally, Jones frequently reminds us that she likes to do “research,” calling to mind the old law-drama montage, the one from every Grisham book: Star pulling an all-nighter with a stack of Federal Reporters open before her and a green banker’s lamp at her left, Sober Young Mind glasses perched atop her head.

The strangest part of Jones’ lawyerly penchant for research, however, is that she tends to rediscover it only after a segment is over. Following a lengthy discussion last week about the “legality” of CBS’ new show Kid Nation, it became clear that neither Jones nor her two guests had any idea whether a) the children involved in the show had accidentally consumed bleach, as alleged; b) their parents hadn’t been contacted about the bleach-drinking, as alleged; or c) anything they thought they knew about the show was true. At the end of the segment, Star leapt into action, promising her viewers, “I’m going to find out the facts.”

Maybe the next time, before you air the segment?

Last week also saw a painful segment with Dustin Diamond, the aforementioned “Screech,” of Saved by the Bell “fame.” Jones interrogated Diamond about the sex videos he himself released when he found he couldn’t suppress them. (Cut to truly harrowing footage of a bearded Screech in a bubble bath.) Jones shouted down his (somewhat provocative) claim that the legal system makes it almost impossible to suppress such tapes. Instead, she hectored him about his efforts to revive his dwindling career with a tawdry stunt.

Um. Star? The most interesting thing about Star’s show is Star, who has shed 150 pounds since The View. Indeed, while she was busy excoriating Screech for cashing in on his sex video, she declined to note that while she refused to discuss her gastric surgery for ages, she then gave the exclusive story to Glamour. Then again, she does look smashing. Maybe the producers think that’s enough to win women viewers.

Which brings us to the really insulting aspect of Star Jones: the notion that what women want from their television programming is to watch a bunch of other women free-associate all at the same time. This appears to be the mode of the revamped View, as well, and who knows, perhaps women really do aspire to television that looks like a Lean Cuisine commercial, with packs of women huddled around a countertop scarfing pie and talking over one another. But the effect of listening to Star and her girlfriends talking over one another eventually has all the charm of listening to seven women all talking on their respective cell phones at the manicurist.

All this interrupting might be slightly more palatable if it were the byproduct of some real, hard-nosed legal or political debate. But Jones is constantly at pains to make her show’s gossiping and moralizing friendly to women. This seems to require intermittent reminders that the world is actually a pretty nice place. In the first moments of the first episode, Star tells us that the show seeks to create a “safe environment to share stories” but where there is no fear of asking “the tough questions.” Tough but safe. Like a manicure.

Take, for instance, the wincingly named “SHE party,” a recurring segment where SHE stands for “Simply Her Experience.” The SHE party conversation, like all the others, is free-range, drifting from one guest’s disclosure that she knew there were no WMD in Iraq long before we attacked, to a general colloquy on what one looks for in a girlfriend (“honesty and loyalty,” all can agree). But whenever her guests begin to excoriate the bad athletes or bad celebrities, Jones stops to remind us that there are “lots of athletes out there doing their jobs” and lots of “young actresses out there doing their thing.”

Perhaps because she occasionally reminds us of the good people doing their jobs, Jones thinks of her show as being above the fray. She knew very definitely the kind of show she didn’t want to do. As she told the AP: “I told them I don’t want to do screaming TV, fighting TV, insulting TV.”

What she wanted to do instead is less clear. The pervasive theme that carries through the first few episodes of Star Jones is lofty, moralistic clucking about the ugly effects of relentless media scrutiny on reality-show kids, athletes, starlets, actors, and Leona Helmsley. Jones herself has tried to have it both ways with the media, exploiting her fame while demanding her privacy, and now she’s made a TV show that does the same thing. The hypocrisy of a program about celebrities that also derides television’s obsession with celebrity seems to elude everyone who appears on the show. But maybe it’s just the inevitable result of a collision between a notion of law that begins and ends in the bath with Screech, and a notion of women that begins and ends at a seventh-grade pajama party.