There’s a wave of ’80s talent back on television this fall. It’s just that many of them are playing themselves, rather depressingly, in reality TV shows.
Sure, “T.J. Hooker” is starring in a CBS sitcom, “Magnum P.I.” looks splendid back in uniform and one “L.A. Law” alumnus was appointed (temporarily, anyway) to the Supreme Court on “Outlaw.” But October also brings us another “L.A. Law”-yer, the star of “Who’s the Boss?” and a blast from “Cheers'” past portraying themselves — or heavily massaged versions of the real articles.
Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna star in and produce “Harry Loves Lisa” for TV Land, Tony Danza becomes an English teacher on A&E’s “Teach,” and Kelsey Grammer turns up in “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” The 310 area code-edition of Bravo’s franchise began taping before Grammer left his wife, Camille — who’s featured in the show, along with one-time child stars/sisters Kim (“Escape to Witch Mountain”) and Kyle (“Little House on the Prairie”) Richards.
Admittedly, this hardly qualifies as a new trend, following as it does in the footsteps of actors like Kirstie Alley; kid stars Danny Bonaduce and Christopher Knight; and musical acts Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne, Dee Snider and Flavor Flav, who have all invited camera crews into their lives. Heck, VH1 essentially built an entire network around such second acts, which doesn’t include competitions like “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Apprentice,” or even “Celebrity Rehab” and “Celebrity Ghost Stories” — although to be fair, being really high can make you think you’ve seen a gh-gh-ghost.
Still, there’s something particularly meta about these vehicles, which craft series that otherwise resemble traditional sitcoms and dramas around actors who, we’re supposed to believe, aren’t acting.
In their show, Hamlin and Rinna spend considerable time strategizing about how to jump-start their careers. Hamlin frets about getting “back in the game” on television and his pilot-season opportunities — ignoring that the cable show has put him on television, right now.
Danza, meanwhile, appears flustered in “Teach” — which features the actor becoming an educator at a Philadelphia high school — when a student asks if he’s a millionaire. Beyond citing a desire to teach that preceded his acting career, he doesn’t fully address the obvious implication in the kid’s question — namely, “Why the hell are you here?” Then again, the logical rationale for this detour — “TV star tackles challenges of teachers” earned him a seven-episode commitment — doesn’t sound quite as high-minded.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of these shows, though, is the amount of artifice that goes into them — coupled with the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. The premises rely upon us to overlook that these veteran performers are still performing, albeit in the equivalent of an Off Off Broadway venue. (The level of staging inherent in unscripted TV is spoofed in the premiere of “Law and Order: Los Angeles” — a small measure of revenge, no doubt, exacted by members of the Writers Guild.)
In a recent interview, actor Jon Hamm issued a fairly stinging if entirely justifiable indictment of the reality genre, citing a distinction between people merely interested in achieving fame (or notoriety) and those aspiring to be artists.
“If you just want to be famous … that’s not that much different than porn,” the “Mad Men” star told Details magazine. “‘I’m a movie star!’ Well, no, you’re not. You’re a porn star, and that’s completely different. … You’re selling your dignity in a way that I feel I’m not. And once you sell it, it’s gone. You ain’t getting it back.”
Hamm was specifically referring to those who garner fame via programs like “The Bachelor,” not other celebrities. And as a leading man near the height of his appeal, he currently has the luxury of taking the high road. For his sake, let’s hope he and actress girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt never feel compelled to pitch their own reality show, “Jon Loves Jennifer,” years from now.
Still, it’s hard to deny his point. Indeed, watching these latest showcases for former TV stars brought to mind a line spoken by Kim Basinger’s character — the prostitute who harbored dreams of being an actress — in “L.A. Confidential.” Thanks to her pimp, she says wistfully, “We still get to act a little.”