Historians will look back at this summer’s reality TV and wonder, “What pitches did the networks reject if this is what they ordered?” As evidence of the creative blockage, consider this perplexing, improvisational hybrid, in which Howie Mandel plays a version of himself, augmented by hidden-camera bits with unsuspecting people. Bravo has scheduled the program outside primetime, perhaps to make room for all the NBC reality shows being exhausted on the sister cable net. Alas, this slightly speculative take on “Being Howie Mandel” won’t make anyone forget Bobby Brown, much less “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Several adjectives apply here, but the best is simply “confusing.” Mandel and his son Alex play themselves, but Julie Warner and Estelle Harris play his wife and Nana, respectively. Everyone seems highly amused by the wacky “Candid Camera”-type stunts that figure promi-nently in Mandel’s act, which employs a miniature camera in his glasses to document the confounded look of a hardware store clerk, say, while he asks moronic questions.
It’s the kind of fleeting jocularity that might work (but mostly doesn’t) as an occasional gag on “The Tonight Show,” and Jay Leno helpfully pops in as himself, since getting someone to run these little gems is part of the “private life” in the title. Along the way, Howie hangs out with comic John Mendoza, reveals that he’s compulsively germ phobic and has to have a chat with Alex after the lad explores his own brand of hidden-camera performance art, which lands him in trouble at school.
What’s sorely lacking is any kind of perspective wider than the lens in Mandel’s trick eyewear. And while it’s become de rigueur for celebs to engage in improvised comedy that dryly spoofs their own foibles, Mandel’s presentation of his assorted tics and phobias begs the question why even a fake wife would tolerate him.
In that respect, “Hidden Howie” offers a challenge in ascertaining precisely where the project went haywire, though that puzzle isn’t so in-teresting as to warrant repeated viewing. Suffice it to say that while Mandel’s antics really aren’t that much of a nuisance, everyone involved would be better off had they stayed hidden.