I generally tend to shun most forms of lurid television. Jerry Springer never, ever, held my interest. Maury Povich sends me channel flipping. Fear Factor and The Bachelor make me dive for cover. I flirted with Melrose Place when I was in university, but that was because I liked the campiness and had a thing for Marcia Cross.
But there’s one TV show that is lurid, manipulative, cheesy and incredibly addictive, that probably is worse than all of the ones I listed, plus a dozen reality shows and The OC combined. And heaven help me, I can’t take my eyes off of it.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I must confess my shame. I’m a devotee of the E! True Hollywood Story.
As I recounted in a recent column, when I was unemployed last year, I could not, repeat, could not get enough of the E! True Hollywood Story. Every morning at 9 I was up getting my fix of lurid, sensational celebrity biographies. My self-esteem was shot, my life was in the toilet, but give me that familiar theme music—Dum-dum-dum-dum-duhhhh-da-dum, Dum-dum-dum-dum-duhhhh-da-dum, ding ding!—and the tale of some famous, semi-famous, or could-have-been-famous person whose life involved some combination of sex, drugs, fame, money, excess, success and failure, and I knew I could make it through the day.
I still don’t know why. But, oh my word, it was addictive.
For those who don’t know how the E! True Hollywood Story works, let me explain. It’s a biography of a celebrity (really famous, not quite famous, could have been famous) or phenomenon (TV show, movie, music group, fad) done in (usually) under an hour. Generally speaking, it follows a strict formula:
- Birth and obscurity: usually involving pictures of the hometown the celebrity grew up in as it currently exists, interviews with friends, and family/yearbook photos
- First brush with fame: the key point in high school/college where they realize their ambition to be something different. This is coupled with:
- First brush with anguish: usually, though not always, there is a hint of the disaster that will follow the celebrity. This is either the first signs of an addiction or a predilection that will “spiral” in future, or the first signs of abuse that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
- Early fame: their first appearance playing some obscure role that gets noticed in a big way
- Fame: they’re at their peak, invariably represented by still photographs because they can’t afford the rights to show the film/TV show. And then they do, they use a tinny, not-really-soundalike soundtrack because they still can’t afford the rights to the theme music.
- The coming storm: oh, but the fickle finger of fate is coming in the form of addiction, sexual quirks, relational turmoil, emotional breakdown, cancellation, etc. There may be old film clips, but if not there will be “reconstructions” with actors in silhouette, shot with all the dramatic tension of an episode of Knots Landing.
- All hell breaks loose: Friends and family talk in somber tones about what they did to pitch in. The celebrity, if still alive, looks reflective.
- Aftermath: the celebrity, if still alive has moved from reflective to penitent. If the celebrity is dead, this is usually when you start seeing tears on the part of friends and families.
- Today…: We quickly fast forward through umpteen years of dinner theatre, bad sitcoms or retirement to now where the celebrity lives in obscurity / uber-fame and, at last, a decent marriage/sense of self esteem. Happiness is coming around the corner. (If the celebrity is dead now, then some happier moment with them is brought to mind in summation).
Like all formulas, some steps are skipped, or elided into others, or there are twists, but for the most part, that’s the story behind the True Hollywood Story.
Some other basic rules for the E! True Hollywood Story: Always underscore the scene with grating music (not as much as Entertainment Tonight, but enough to be irritable nonetheless). Always establish the passing of time by indicating the celebrity’s age in just about every paragraph (“35 year-old Loretta Swit”). And people on the upswing are “riding high”, bad things happen “following their success” and their addictions are always “spiraling” (indeed often “spiraling out of control”).
While the format works well with the famous, it’s just as well with the increasingly obscure. Goodness knows how many porn kings, would-be starlets, has-been producers and never-gonna-be hangers on have made compelling subject matter for the E! True Hollywood Story. All they need are the magic elements. These are:
Sitcoms: The E! True Hollywood Story formula works best with sitcom stars. I don’t know why, but it seems like just about every sitcom that has been held in public esteem over the past forty years—with the possible exception of M*A*S*H—seems to have been a breeding ground for excess, hubris and depravity. Jay North, Dennis the Menace from the 1950s sitcom of the same name, is a key example: childhood fame, then obscurity, punctuated by spiralling addiction, depression and finally serenity in obscurity. Or Danny Bonaduce from The Partridge Family (rinse and repeat). And then there’s the male leads of Bewitched: Darrin No. 1 (Dick York) is hopped up on pain killers, while Darrin No. 2 (Dick Seargant) is cowering in the closet. And let’s not even go near the seething cauldron of rage and misery that was the set of Diff’rent Strokes…
Sex: which, surprisingly, doesn’t appear as often as you’d think. The E! True Hollywood way involves reconstructions in soft lighting, or actual photographs with the naughty bits pixeled out. David Strickland’s biog feature lots of arty-looking scenes in strip clubs, while dozens of soft core photos of Bettie Page had her, ah, best side, treated with the ‘radial blur’ feature in Adobe Photoshop, much to the amusement of some intern at E! I’m sure.
Accidents Waiting To Happen: the best True Hollywood Stories are the ones that follow the rules of classical drama. Someone, or something, has hamartia, that tragic flaw that will undo everything. Often this is down to people and their self-destructive tendencies—say hello, Gary Busey—but one of the best, and most atypical, episodes of E! True Hollywood Story is the one that follows the trial of John Landis for the involuntary manslaughter of Vic Morrow and two children during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie. The episode had actors reconstruct the trial based on transcripts, with commentary by counsel for the prosecution and the defence.
Murder/Suicide/Unnatural Death: Blame Marilyn Monroe for this. There’s something about a dead body that makes us all the more fascinated in the lurid details of one’s life. And if there are actual crime scene photos it’s all the more voyeuristic. Plus the aftermath deals with investigating the crime, which adds even more intrigue.
Addiction: One could be forgiven for believing from watching True Hollywood Story that one can’t be a major (or minor) star without having some kind of an addiction (to drugs, to sex, to eating) that requires deliverance. Just about everyone ever featured had some serious habit they kicked. And I suspect if they didn’t, they would simply play up how the celebrity in question went on the patch and quit smoking, and there but for the grace of God now survives.
You don’t need all the magic elements, either, just use one and tell it well. But, rather like the treasures in Dungeons and Dragons, the more you get, the better the story is. Corey Haim is a fascinating and troubling portrait of addiction, but Mackenzie Phillips is a fascinating but troubling portrait of addiction with a sitcom, while Andy Dick is a fascinating and troubling portrait of addiction with a sitcom and is an accident waiting to happen (with a brush with suicide thanks to his friendship with David Strickland).
But then there are the occasions where you get the right congruency of heavenly bodies, so to speak, and you manage to score all five magic elements.
The winner and still champion of this is Bob Crane. He’s the star of a sitcom, who has an addiction to recording and watching home-made porn, a vast and deeply scary sex life and a friendship that threatens to undo everything…that leads to his brutal murder. Featuring actual video footage of Bob Crane’s homemade porn, video taken at the crime scene, and Hogan’s Heroes footage, it is in E! True Hollywood terms, the gold standard by which all other episodes are judged. And yet, According to E!‘s website, Mr. Crane is actually at number 23 in their list of best True Hollywood Stories. Their number one is Princess Diana, which also works in her own way.
While I can explain how the E! True Hollywood Story works, I’m afraid I am still at a loss to explain why. I’m sure it’s the usual suspects: voyeurism; a sense of catharsis by watching something bleaker and darker than my life; a morbid (in all senses of the word) curiousity with celebrity. And of course, the promise of getting the dirt behind something.
That’s what kept me watching the True Hollywood Story on Welcome Back Kotter till 1am the other night. I mean, hey, it’s a sitcom—there’s bound to be something good.