In surreality TV, the right casting can occasionally wring surprising mileage out of a hokey concept, which is a fair description of CBS’ latest addition to the “Marginal celebrities will do just about anything for attention” genre. Wedding “The Surreal Life” to “Cops,” CBS’ transformation of five mismatched “stars” into Muncie, Ind., patrolmen sounds idiotic on its face, but the resulting hour actually delivers moments of warmth and humor, as well as its share of idiocy. If nothing else, it won’t end the world before “Jericho” returns to do so with a bit more panache.
Of course, given CBS’ fondness for cop dramas, it’s perhaps no surprise the network’s reality offerings would eventually join “48 Hours” by tilting in that direction. Too bad there wasn’t enough time to train the central quintet to ID trace blood and semen evidence, but maybe next time.
“CHiPs” star Erik Estrada, La Toya Jackson, former wrestler Trish Stratus, “The Osbournes” heir Jack Osbourne and “Jackass” punching bag Jason “Wee-Man” Acuna undergo training in police procedure during the first half-hour, forging unlikely bonds while learning to shoot and handcuff potential perps.
“You’re more of a guy than I am,” Jack marvels to the muscular Trish after they both experience being Tasered.
Acuna, foremost, brings just the right touch of sardonic wit to the proceedings, marveling over seeing Jackson in this setting and busting a gut when Estrada breaks wind during a hand-to-hand combat training. “Ponch just farted!” he bellows, which, for the “Jackass” crowd, by itself should qualify this as must-see TV.
A bit too quickly, the pseudo-crime fighters are graduated and each paired with a legitimate cop to roam Muncie’s kind-of-boring streets, dealing with drunk drivers, domestic disturbances and a family overwrought by a house fire. In the best sequence, an elderly, near-toothless woman accused of peddling drugs becomes positively giddy over Estrada arresting her, yakking at him (and calling him “Ponch”) all the way to the station.
Then again, she’s to be forgiven: Life, in this case, really is imitating art.
Once the “Cops” motif kicks in, the program loses some momentum, and the series works best when the faux police make like Acuna and resist the temptation to take themselves too seriously.
CBS will run the show twice during its premiere week, and it’s hard to foresee this hour doing much beyond killing time till the regular troops arrive — which, come to think of it, mirrors the show’s basic conceit. Still, if “Armed & Famous” draws even passable ratings, CBS could have a real utility player on its hands: After all, no network has access to more actors with experience playing cops and robbers.