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Review: 'I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here' (updated)

June 2, 2009 | 10:35 am

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"I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here" -- or, as I like to think of it, "Get Me a Celebrity, I’m Out of Here" -- is NBC’s belated sequel to an ABC series from 2003 which was itself based on a British show whose ninth edition will air later this year, and which has also fathered France’s "Je suis une celebrite, sortez-moi de la!" and Germany’s "Ich bin ein Star – Holt mich hier raus!" Like "Survivor" it drops people into a harsh environment in which they are forced to do tricks and win friends to stay in the game; and like "Big Brother" it watches them cohabit in something like real time; and like any show with the word "celebrity" in the title, it features mildly famous people who have nothing more pressing to do.

Most are not new to reality shows; a few owe the whole of their fame to them. The 11 players airlifted into the Costa Rican jungle several days back include actors Stephen Baldwin and Lou Diamond Phillips; former pro wrestler Torrie Wilson; former pro basketball player John Salley; Patricia Blagojevich (wife of and stand-in for impeached Illinois Gov. Rod); the comedy team known as Frangela; quirky "American Idol" contestant Sanjaya Malakar; and Janice Dickinson of Oxygen’s "The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency," and a veteran of the British "Celebrity" -- a fact not mentioned here, perhaps to bolster the impression that this is an original idea. (It may account for her calm, and for some jungle knowledge about rats and campfires.)

None of those contestants are as beholden to reality television as the now-departed Spencer and Heidi (Montag) Pratt, from MTV’s "The Hills," collectively known as Speidi. Spencer Pratt, an alienating force who strives mightily to live up to his surname, may be the Most Hated Man in Pop Culture right now, to judge by the comments appended to any online article or video clip that features him. On Monday night’s opener, he didn’t promise amity: "I’m not the kind of person that has friends," he said, declaring that he would take things to "the next level of supervillain that they think I am."

But it wasn’t long before the Pratts -- disappointed by the accommodations and the company, Heidi in tears and the two cultivating an us-against-the-world attitude that can make them seem the Couple Most Likely to Form a Suicide Pact -- threatened to leave. "The cast is devaluing our fame," Spencer told NBC honcho Ben Silverman by phone Monday. Theirs is, of course, exactly the sort of celebrity that devalues fame, having no basis in anything apart from itself. There is some question as to how much of the Pratt attack is calculated -- Spencer noted that Heidi’s breakdown was "the first time that you’re crying on TV that’s not fake" -- but practically speaking there is no difference between being a jerk and pretending to be one. Here Spencer just seemed nutty, eyes Manson-wide and making animal noises as a form of argument.

After having been talked back onto the show on Monday, they left it for real on Tuesday – or did they? -- but not before performing poorly in a challenge that put them in a dark room full of bats, mice, bugs and sudden showers of eel slime, and not before Spencer’s baptism at the hands of the born-again Baldwin. (The Pratts’ frequent talk of God was at striking odds with their proudly self-serving behavior.) Their rumored replacements are Baldwin’s brother Daniel and Heidi’s sister Holly and/or Spencer's sister Stephanie (both of whom are also on "The HIlls"), but it would be no shock to see Speidi back again, either. By Tuesday night, Spencer had posted on Twitter, “The devil fooled speidi in to making an awful decision and we are praying to Jesus to get NBC to give us another shot to redeem.”

It’s hard to say how their departure will affect the show. Everyone else seems pretty nice, relatively grounded, low maintenance and mutually supportive. (Monday night the men shared with the women the dinner they'd won.) That doesn’t make for much drama. Perhaps ironic humor (see: Frangela) will take its place. (Tuesday’s coming attractions did promise friction between John and Janice.) It’s all for charity, anyway -- there’s no need to be nasty.

Shows like this are often uncharitably seen as the last refuge of the fading famous. But whatever their reasons for signing on to this Mission: Uncomfortable, this cast is as essential to this adventure as Sawyer and Kate and Locke are to "Lost." It may -- or may not -- prove interesting to see how their weeks in the wild tear them down or build them up. They have already faced the usual Difficult Food Challenge, featuring rat tails, cow-intestine milkshakes and live creeping insects, and the Trauma Tank, a kind of waterboarding plus bugs. ("You wanna stay around for that," said host Damien Fahey.) And they survived the Pratts.

--Robert Lloyd

--Credit: NBC Universal

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