Monday, January 20, 2003

Hollywood better than ol' reality show stuff

LOS ANGELES - Welcome to an episode of My Surreal Life. I'm working my way through a crowded WB party toward Treat Williams, when rapper-turned-preacher MC Hammer cruises by in a Harlem Globetrotters sweatsuit.

Flashbulbs pop as actor Corey Feldman stoops for a photo with diminutive Emmanuel Lewis, while veteran actors Liz Torres and John Schneider circulate through the room, mostly unnoticed.

Yes, strange things happen when the Television Critics Association press tour moves from sleepy, residential Pasadena to Hollywood's new Renaissance Hotel and coincides with a tidal wave of reality TV.

At the bustling WB party, country megastar Reba McEntire is mostly ignored with her Reba cast.

Ten feet away, a dozen TV writers surround former Survivor witch Jerri Manthey to hear her theory on the popularity of reality TV.

"I think people love to see other people get humiliated," says Ms. Manthey, who stars in WB's The Surreal Life comedy reality show (9 p.m. Thursday, Channels 64, 26).

To rehab her image, she spent 10 days in a house with fallen stars like Mr. Hammer, Mr. Feldman, Mr. Lewis and Motley Crue singer Vince Neil.

"This bitch role that I carried with me for the last year and a half, it's been a big burden for me," she says.

Across the room, a group of TV critics compare notes on the new reality series. We can't remember the name of a WB reality show canceled last spring before it aired.

"Is it a reality show if it never happened?" asks one writer.

`This is unreal'

My Surreal Life continues a few days later over lunch on the set of American Dreams, the drama set in 1964 Philadelphia.

We eat Philly cheesesteak sandwiches while sitting on wooden bleaches at the replica of Dick Clark's American Bandstand TV studio.

Soon star Brittany Snow, 16, is mobbed by reporters as if she's a 1960s singer promoting a new single. She says she loves everything about her show, even the blue Catholic school uniform sweater and pleated skirt.

"I think it's cute," she says. "I love the knee socks and penny loafers."

Across the shiny black dance floor, ageless Mr. Clark, an executive producer on the show, speaks about working in a time warp.

"This is unreal. My whole life flashes before my eyes," he says.

Designers copied plaques in Mr. Clark's office for the fake awards behind the elevated Bandstand podium. Above the bleachers are faded pennants from Boise, Seattle and San Francisco.

"I've got all the original banners in my office. In a bag. Why? I don't know," says Mr. Clark while standing by a 1960s black-and-white TV monitor.

Dressed in a drab dark gray suit and white shirt is Mr. Clark's youthful alter-ego, actor Paul D. Roberts, who plays the Bandstand host.

Mr. Roberts is anxious to talk to writers. Maybe that's because the Canadian with a British accent is never heard on American Dreams. All of his dialogue is pre-recorded by Mr. Clark. Yes, on this Bandstand, the singers - and the host - are lip-synching.

Stars are everywhere

At the CBS/UPN party, model Tyra Banks towers over most of the writers, actors and publicists. Explains the host of UPN's new Search for America's Top Model: "I'm 5-10, but 6-2 in heels."

Many CBS crime-fighters prowl the premises: David Caruso and Emily Procter (CSI: Miami), Cincinnati's Rocky Carroll (The Agency); Craig T. Nelson (The District); and Adam West and Burt Ward (TV's Batman and Robin).

Holy Nostalgia! The dynamic duo are coming back with Frank Gorshin (The Riddler), Lee Meriwether (Cat Woman) and Julie Newmar (Cat Woman) in CBS' movie, Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt.

At the height of the party, gridlock near the buffet makes it nearly impossible to move anywhere in the room. It turns out that Nia Vardalos, Lainie Kazan and the gang from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and CBS' new My Big Fat Greek Life sitcom, are causing a big fat traffic jam by holding court with reporters near the serving line.

Ms. Vardalos says food has always been part of her life and career. Before she finally hit the big time, "I used to waitress at a comedy club in Toronto," she says.

ABC's red carpet

ABC's contribution to My Surreal Life begins on the red carpet outside Quixote Studios, where the network promotes its American Indian DreamKeeper miniseries.

After posing for photographers with her Less Than Perfect cast, actress Sara Rue agrees to pose with one of several horses adding to the Western theme.

Inside the cavernous studio, the biggest crowds gather around Broadway star Matthew Broderick (in ABC's The Music Man remake) and Trista Rehn (The Bachelorette).

Meanwhile, sitcom stars Bonnie Hunt and Jim Belushi end up talking to each other.

Even comeback kid John Ritter isn't attracting the media horde he did last summer. Mostly he hangs with wife Amy Yasbeck, a Blue Ash native, and his TV teens from 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.

At 54, nearly three decades since Three's Company, he's just happy to be here watching his young co-stars enjoy the first taste of fame.

"This is the greatest time of my life. I appreciate it more," Mr. Ritter says.

"But I love looking at this through the kids' eyes - the absolute, unmitigated joy, and heart-throbbing excitement, and squeals of delight about the possibility of something like a People's Choice award."

Before I leave the party, I see NYPD Blue star Dennis Franz get roped into posing for photos with a bison.

"Dennis, look this way! Over here!" photographers bark at TV's toughest cop as he pets the huge animal.

Now I know why reality TV is so popular. Fact is stranger than fiction, particularly in Hollywood.


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