I have been burned out on reality series featuring the so-called private lives of celebrities since about two minutes into the 2002 pilot of the Anna Nicole Show on the E! cable channel. So when I heard that a new reality TV series starring a celebrity - about the making of another reality TV series starring a celebrity - would debut tomorrow night, I felt doubly depressed.
But if the television networks insist upon giving us more, more, more reality shows because they are cheap, cheap, cheap to make, I say let the celebrities featured in these exercises in narcissism and phony verisimilitude be as interesting as Roseanne Barr in The Real Roseanne Show, premiering tomorrow night on ABC.
Let the series also be produced by someone as clever a storyteller as R. J. Cutler, the Emmy-award-winning documentary filmmaker whose cameras have followed presidential candidates (The War Room), as well as high school students (American High). Although most of the drama in The Real Roseanne Show is of the smoke-and-mirror sort, Cutler nonetheless has constructed a narrative that at least makes it feel as if something is happening.
The effort represents the newest twist in reality TV. Cutler has filmed Roseanne creating a new cooking/lifestyle show titled Domestic Goddess, which will debut on the ABC Family cable channel next month, and then turned that footage into a second show. In the process, the producer wants viewers to believe that they're witnessing both a show-business comeback and the birth of a kinder, gentler Roseanne.
I have to admire the clean economy of the premise-setting statement with which Cutler begins The Real Roseanne Show:
Six years ago, Roseanne Barr's No. 1 sitcom was canceled.
Three years ago, her daytime talk show was canceled.
Tomorrow, she begins her comeback.
This is the story of her struggle to get back on TV ... without killing anyone.
But efficiency can lead to oversimplification - sometimes to the point of being misleading. Technically, Roseanne's long-running and groundbreaking sitcom about a blue-collar family was canceled, but it wasn't because of ratings. By firing people left and right and taking the story lines in crackpot directions, Roseanne essentially made it all but impossible for ABC to continue her show.
Furthermore, an actress as widely known and as successful as Roseanne has been rarely needs to "struggle to get back on TV." In fact, as viewers of The Real Roseanne Show will see for themselves, she doesn't struggle much at all.
Her "comeback" begins with a vague idea that she'd like to do a cooking/lifestyle show similar to Martha Stewart's, only with Roseanne's very un-Martha-like sensibility suffusing it. As the actress herself explains, the thing she's most interested in is food - and a cooking show will give her the chance to be around food and get paid while doing so.
Presto. By the end of the pilot, she has a powerful Hollywood talent agency ready to pitch the cooking show to cable channels and networks, though neither she nor the agents have any real idea what the show will look like.
Despite the artificiality of its premise, The Real Roseanne Show is still worthy of consideration by viewers interested in show business, television, celebrity and the idea of family.
Think what bad news this could be for anyone who thought (and hoped) that the glut of reality TV had run its course. If The Real Roseanne Show succeeds, the television industry will have found a genre of programming even cheaper than reality TV: Television shows about reality television shows. Could the culture survive a series about the making of, say, Joe Millionaire?
The good news is Roseanne herself. The actress is every bit as strange as Ozzy Osbourne, and her household is even weirder. The crew she assembles to help her get back on television includes: a new boyfriend from Arizona whom she picked up on the Internet, an ex-husband who is now her handyman, the wife of the ex-husband who works as Roseanne's personal assistant, a son and son-in-law who give new meaning to the term slackers, a rabbi who claims to be an expert in reading facial features, another rabbi who seems to specialize in platitudes, a best friend who cries a lot and a producer who has the distinction of being the only staff writer from her sitcom whom she did not fire (though he claims she actually did fire him "once or twice").
The household and the family that anchors it, are dysfunctional enough to be amusing in the same way that the Osbournes are. By Season 2 of The Osbournes, however, I began feeling that they were playing to the camera. I get the same feeling when watching Roseanne and the members of her cast. They all seem to play to an audience whose members wish to feel functionally superior to celebrities yet in fact, are being deceived and manipulated by the series.
Near the end of the second of two episodes that will air tomorrow night, Roseanne says: "In every single thing, I'm always at conflict - no matter what. Even if it's about inner peace, I have conflict."
Then, turning her head to the right, as if one side of her brain is speaking, she asks, "What is inner peace?"
Turning to the left, she has the other side respond by saying, "Shut up."
The Real Roseanne Show asks viewers to believe the actress is trying to balance a quest for inner peace with a burning desire to make a show business comeback. As much as the right side of my brain likes Roseanne and wants to buy into that premise, the left side says people who are searching for inner peace don't invite a camera crew on the journey then package it as prime-time entertainment.
What: The Real Roseanne Show
When: Tomorrow night at 9 and 9:30 (two episodes back to back)
Where: WMAR (Channel 2).
In brief: Roseanne stages a television comeback for the reality TV cameras.