E! True Hollywood Story: Comfort Viewing for the Discriminating Time-Waster

A blog about TV and pop culture.

If you find yourself zoning out in front of the TV this weekend, make sure to cruise by the E! network and say goodbye to trash television as you know it. Because things may start changing soon at E!, the comfort channel of choice for celebrity-stalkers and time-wasters everywhere. Melissa and Joan Rivers, the mother-and-daughter team famous for their tautly pulled faces and the barely cloaked hostility of their “red carpet” awards-show interviews, have already left E! for the TV Guide Channel (which is also in the process of being revamped into a sexier, less listings-centered format.) On Monday morning, Ted Harbert, former president of NBC, will be taking over as CEO and president of the E! and Style Networks (both of which are owned by parent company Comcast).

For the past month, former E! exec Mindy Herman has been serving out the remainder of her lame-duck presidency. In late May, she was forced to step down amidst rumors of financial improprieties and diva-esque tantrums (she reportedly threw herself two lavish baby showers on the company tab, and got into a brawl in the parking lot of a Hollywood club.) Herman was also criticized for passing on pilots that went on to make a smash on other networks, including Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Punk’d. But to her credit, it was under her watch that E! acquired its trashiest property of all, the glorious shipwreck that is The Anna Nicole Smith Show.

Ted Harbert sounds like a solid choice to head the new E!—he’s been working his way up the network-TV ladder, first at ABC, then NBC, for over 25 years, and was behind such respected and popular shows as The Wonder Years and NYPD Blue. But I hope quality programming doesn’t catch on too soon at E! Sure, they could stand to lose ballast like It’s Good to Be … , the series that chronicles the spending habits of the stars with a uniquely unpleasant combination of outrage and envy. But please, Ted, don’t let them lay a finger on E! True Hollywood Story. This celebrity-profile series, with a leisurely two-hour pace and sometimes bizarre choice of subjects (this Sunday’s, Meg Ryan, seems predictable enough, but Larry Hagman? Tawny Kitaen? The Little Rascals?), chronicles the lives of the famous with astonishing thoroughness; one imagines research teams of seriously overeducated young media professionals, staying up nights to locate archival footage of Paula Abdul’s high school talent show. And despite the ease with which such a format could slip into sycophancy, the unseen interviewers on True Hollywood Story somehow manage to get startlingly honest, often soul-searching interviews from the subjects themselves, their relatives, and friends (whether you want to hear Heather Locklear’s ex-roommate searching her soul is a separate question). Sometimes, the whole thing actually feels vaguely edifying, like watching PBS or the History Channel … until suddenly it’s 11 o’clock and the only subject you can discourse upon with any real authority is Winona Ryder’s felony record.

Even as I type this, I’m half-watching (and gleefully TiVoing for later) an E! True Hollywood Story about the imaginary villain of my childhood games, the greatest motorcycle daredevil of his generation, Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel (see? Did you know his real name was Robert Craig Knievel?). Evel is the ultimate subject for a True Hollywood Story: He had a gritty childhood, a meteoric rise-and-fall-and-rise-again career, and the prerequisite struggles with addiction and divorce. He’s also a one-man factory of indelible quotes: “I went to Idaho and bought a canyon. It’s mine, and I’m going to jump it. The only thing that will get me out of the air is an anti-aircraft gun.” Gotta go. The camera just showed a close-up of an old newspaper headline: “Evel: I Broke My Son’s Nose but I Have No Regrets.” As Homer Simpson likes to sigh while settling into the sofa, that’s good watchin’. 2:53 p.m.

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Did I call it? The fact that this would be the summer of celebrity intervention in athletic games, I mean? Come August, like goddesses in a Greek epic, the blondes of Los Angeles will descend upon Athens to crown their heroes with the laurels of victory. Last winter, Lance Armstrong, five-time Tour de France champion, cancer survivor, and all-around personification of courage and excellence—a role he good-naturedly spoofs in a cameo in the new movie Dodgeball—split up with his wife of five years and began dating pop-country star Sheryl Crow. Now Crow’s in France, standing by her man and giving interviews on the Outdoor Life Network  (one recent question: “Has the fluidity and savagery of the sport inspired you to write any music about it?”). If you have good cable and no job, you can spend the whole day following the Tour on OLN, which is in the midst of a bike-themed programming blitz the network promos have dubbed “the Cyclysm” (cycling cataclysm? cyclical orgasm?). The Cyclysm is essentially all Lance, all the time—interviews not only with intimates like Crow, but with the U.S. team’s cook, their mechanic, the guy who drives their bus. At the end of each day’s live coverage, there are installments of a half-hour series called “The Lance Chronicles,” which allow you to follow everything from Armstrong’s topless Esquire cover shoot to his speech at a charity benefit in his native Austin, Texas.

But the real TV story this week has to be the undisputed 25-game reign of Jeopardy! supercontestant Ken Jennings. As of yesterday, the 30-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City had won a total of $788,960, beating the previous record-holder, Tom Walsh, by a margin of over $600,000. Granted, this unprecedented victory streak was also made possible by this season’s change in Jeopardy! rules—the term limits have been lifted, as it were, so that the run of a winning contestants may continue indefinitely, instead of being stopped after five consecutive games. But Ken is no mere beneficiary of this loophole in Jeopardy! bylaws; self-deprecating and sweet, the blond, elfin Jennings has host Alex Trebek wrapped around his fast-on-the-buzzer finger. (One evening, the bemused host opened with, “Welcome to the Alex and Ken show,” and David Letterman has an ongoing gag in which he speculates that a lovestruck Trebek is helping Jennings cheat.) KenJen has turned the Culver City set into his own private fiefdom.

Watching Ken Jennings play is like witnessing any great athlete in top form: He’s the Michael Jordan of trivia, the Seabiscuit of geekdom. Note his systematic habit of moving down the categories vertically, one by one, rather than skipping around the board. His nearly preternatural ability to land on the hidden Daily Doubles. His obscure betting tactics, which, as near as I can divine, are inspired by an obsessive-compulsive need to end each day’s winnings with a round figure. His habit of adding some thematic je ne sais quoi to his answers (which, this being Jeopardy!, are of course phrased as questions.) If the topic is a foreign country, he’ll answer in that country’s accent, and in answer to one clue about hip-hop music, the ultra-white Ken memorably responded, “What is rap, yo?” Like a hot-dogging ball player insisting on his special end-zone touchdown dance, Jennings will no doubt take heat from some viewers for these stylistic quirks, but what the hell? It’s show business, of a sort, and KenJen’s antics have once again made Jeopardy!—which I hadn’t watched regularly since matching wits with my Dad in high school—required viewing.

On the blogs and message boards, KenJen mania has reached a mass so critical that it’s now producing a counterphenomenon of Ken Jennings fatigue, even backlash. Pockets of Ken Jennings resistance are springing up everywhere. Not from these quarters, mind you. Surfergirl loves KenJen: his Mormon politeness, his ever-ready applause when his opponent nails a tough question, the Japanese Totoro doll he keeps at his podium as a good-luck charm. Watching him tear through a fresh blue bank of TV screens laden with clues, you’re acutely aware of that strange dialectical push-pull created by any extraordinary winning streak. It’s like watching someone pitch a no-hitter; you want it to go on forever, yet somehow, you’re also praying for his luck to snap. As Ken dispatches row after row of clues with the same even-tempered mastery of every topic from children’s literature to mining, it’s impossible not to occasionally root for the underdog. At the end of last night’s show, Tom, Ken’s nearest challenger, had only $400 left, and his written response to the Final Jeopardy question was a limp, indecipherable squiggle. (To be fair, Ken didn’t know this one either. But he still had $22,000 left to bet.) Jenny, a tiny, bespectacled woman with a voice like Lisa Simpson’s, had pulled off some impressive turnarounds early in the game, but she was no longer even on the board; her balance had gone to zero, forcing her to sit out the final round. Poor Tom had a sad-sack demeanor that was hard to warm up to, but watching Li’l Lisa kick Ken’s ass would have provided a feminist thrill.

Of course, the outcome of this epic contest has already been decided; the shows we’re watching were taped months ago at Sony Studios in Culver City. But the buzz created by the KenJen juggernaut (which in recent weeks has increased Jeopardy!’s audience by as much as 20 percent), together with the strict secrecy policy imposed on contestants who have finished their run, gives each day’s broadcast the suspenseful feel of a live sporting event. I’ll keep tuning in every night for the same sick reason as millions of others: If and when KenJen finally does lose, I want to be watching. 2:42 p.m.