These days, reality TV is the last resort for down-on-their-luck, formerly famous folks. So why can’t I stop watching?
Just when I thought I could give up on VH1 and its ridiculous onslaught of reality shows, I get reeled in by its never-ending train wreck of C-list celebrities: Frank the Entertainer, formerly of I Love New York; the cast of Celebrity Rehab 3 (Heidi Fleiss, Dennis Rodman, Tom Sizemore, and an America’s Next Top Model reject); and Brandy’s brother on For the Love of Ray J. The latest entries in VH1’s Watching Road Kill Hall of Shame are two new shows starring Sandy “Pepa” Denton and Fantasia Barrino.
Now, of course, this isn’t Masterpiece Theatre. And these days, you don’t have to be on television to find fame on the little screen. Twitter handles like “@shitmydadsays” get television contracts; Internet sex-tape “stars” Kim Kardashian and Ray J become reality-show headliners. But increasingly, reality TV is the last resort for down-on-their-luck, formerly famous folks. (See: Flavor Flav.) Today’s Hollywood motto is: “I was famous once, I can be famous again. I want my reality show, VH1!”
So you’ve got the Jacksons snaring a reality-TV show after their much more famous brother’s death. (Apparently, they know a good opportunity when they see it.) It’s why Tom DeLay danced with the stars. Rod Blagojevich will appear on Celebrity Apprentice (and his wife, Patti, was on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here). All the has-beens of America are—or are trying to be—on somebody’s television screen.
As an admittedly unashamed fan of reality television, and good television, too, I had to give Fantasia for Real and Let’s Talk About Pep a quick glance. If the age-old adage is true—that curiosity killed the cat—then read on. For entertainment’s sake and for laugh-out-loud satisfaction, these ladies’ realities are definitely ones to watch.
Fantasia for Real (VH1, Mondays, 10 p.m., ET)
Fantasia’s had a rough time of it lately: She hasn’t released an album in the last two years. She flaked on several performances in her Broadway run as Miss Celie in The Color Purple. She’s been dogged by pesky rumors that she’s foreclosed on her house and that she’s dating a married man. Clearly, she’s ready for some “good” publicity. (And is there such a thing as “good publicity” when you’re doing reality TV?) Fantasia’s timing couldn’t be more perfect—she’s got a new album coming out soon.
At first glance, Fantasia for Real looks like it’s destined to be a boughetto story of Fantasia’s struggle to take care of her family (she supports six people on one income); her belabored effort to get her GED; and an earnest attempt to be a successful recording artist. From the first episode, it’s almost refreshing to see her try to get her life together. She’s even pretty endearing as she whines, “I’m gonna get that GED, doggone it.”
Still, the show is filled with what Internetspeak refers to as those SMH (shaking my head) moments, most of them provided by Fantasia’s utterly delusional brother, Teeny, 28. “I’mma boss,” he proclaims. Never mind that Teeny is jobless and proud of it. He doesn’t want a job! He didn’t go to school ‘cause “that ain’t what he’s about.” And he doesn’t have a driver’s license. Does he want a Ferrari? Most definitely.
Teeny has no shortage of ambition. As a self-described music engineer, he turns Fantasia’s pool house into a “studio” with foam plastered on the bathroom wall for a recording booth. Is he mooching off his sister’s fame and wealth? Do you have to ask? (Better watch out for that, Teeny; the free ride does have its limits. Keyshia Cole allegedly cut off her sister—and her mother.) And sadly, there are many young brothers out there just like him, determined to be the next Soulja Boy—or even the next one-hit wonder to craft a breakout dance move like the Ricky Bobby, the Halle Berry, or the stanky legg. And I’m not knocking anybody’s dream. Do you. But, damn it, everyone can’t be a star. Let’s be real.
Let’s Talk About Pep (Mondays, VH1, 10:30 p.m., ET)
But maybe Fantasia’s reality isn’t your reality. As if we haven’t heard enough about single black women lately, Let’s Talk About Pep features four single women looking for sex, love, and marriage: Sandy “Pepa” Denton, of Salt-n-Pepa fame; Joumana Kidd, NBA baller Jason Kidd’s ex-wife; Kali Troy aka “Kittie,” who you might remember as the voice of Cita, from BET’s Cita’s World; and Jacque Reid—yes, that Jacque Reid.
They’re “single and high siddity.” Sandy’s been going through a drought—Ms. “Push It” hasn’t had a date, a relationship, or sex in four years. Joumana is newly single and ready to mingle. Kittie is the wild child. And Ms. Reid, well, she wants to have a baby—perhaps with her cutie man friend Lamman Rucker—and she wants it ASAP. The ladies have brunch and dish the details about their latest escapades, reminiscent of Sex and the City—with black women.
And it’s racy, for sure. Foot fetishes and toe licking, Brazilian bikini waxes and Michael Jackson-esque hair fires in a hot tub? Yep, all in the first episode.
Despite all the crazy antics of Kittie and her foot-loving suitor and Pepa and her sugary-sweet first date, I was most intrigued by Jacque Reid, the former host of BET Nightly News. The reality-show move seems so out of step for the serious journalist. But in the 21st century, for journalists and others, what once was, is not; finagling and remixing apparently is the move.
Which is too bad. As much of the Internet generation subscribes to instant YouTube stardom and the “I gotta get mine—right now” mentality, there’s a void for artful television—especially for black audiences, actors, directors, and the like. I (still) lament the death of the classic, often cheesy sitcom formula of the ’90s—The Cosby Show, A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, Living Single, Moesha, Family Matters. I can go on forever. Here’s to hoping that some of us in Gen Y will remember the good old days, put our brains together, and start remixing a television plan of our own. The future of quality television depends on it.
Erin Evans is a copy editor and writer for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.