Siting through the taping of “VH1 Big in 03” leads one to appreciate the invention that makes television great: the remote. Stuck in the Universal Amphitheater, there was no escape, no clicking away from unfortunate bits of business such as Tracy Morgan and Aisha Tyler’s parody of Ben and J.Lo, the largest massing — outside of the unemployment office — of reality TV cast members and Ashton Kutcher simply being Aston Kutcher. One just has to sit and endure.
“Big in 03” is VH1’s entry into the already crowded field of faux awards programming. Its intent is to honor, if that is the word, the people, events and trends that made 2003 the most recent year in human history.
There’s certainly a wealth of material out there, not that the show’s writers showed much imagination. Host D.L. Hughley’s monologue, filled with references to Paris Hilton, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Jackson, could have been cobbled together out of Leno rejects. A taped skit with Jessica Simpson as an undercover genius working for the government was a clever exception to the mundane jokes. The political material showed a distinct anti-war slant, with Iraq named biggest mistake of 2003 (“and No. 4 and 5 and 6 and 7,” as Hughley added in one of his more trenchant moments), and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines took some free swings accepting the show’s biggest quote kudos, commenting that she and the president have at least one thing in common: “Neither of us knows how those words got into our speeches.”
But mostly the show contented itself with naming the year’s biggest gay heroes (the Fab 5 from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” who cavorted with a lost-looking Liza Minnelli) or biggest guilty pleasure (Fox’s “The OC”).
That left the music, and it was a mixed bag. Kid Rock was first up, performing his just released, respectful cover of Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” complete with a pyrotechnic display that, when part of the stage caught fire, turned into an inadvertent reminder of Great White, the year’s biggest musical tragedy. (It was quickly put out but still managed to fray some nerves). Matchbox Twenty, accompanied by a children’s choir, brass and string sections on the overwrought “Bright Lights,” showed that even if you’re given everything you asked for, you can’t always get what you want.
Based on this appearance, Shania Twain should be named the nation’s official half-time entertainment. Her lip-synched perf would have worked just as well at center court or on the 50-yard line as it did here. The only question when she takes the stage is which of the three released versions of “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” will she and her band mime (for the record, it was the pop version).
A surprise appearance by Al Green marked perhaps the most stirring perf of the evening. The punchline to a flat routine featuring Katie Holmes, an ill-used Bernie Mac and some iPods, Green had the aud on its feet during his a cappella “Let’s Stay Together.” Only one band on the bill was capable of following him, and OutKast was more than up to the task. Explosive performances of Andre 3000’s “Hey, Ya!” and Big Boi’s “The Way You Move” whetted the appetite for a full concert by the Atlanta rappers.
OutKast should have been the evening’s finale, but for some reason the group’s performance was followed by an anticlimactic appearance by Beyonce, who accepted the award for year’s biggest entertainer in front of a muted, half-empty house.
“VH1 Big in 03” premieres on the channel Sunday at 9 p.m.