'TMZ' on TV? It's 'ET' without TLC.
If you locked "Entertainment Tonight" into a month of niceness detox, where Mary Hart was given bile injections and left alone with a Lindsay Lohan punching bag, the show might emerge looking something like "TMZ." Based on the popular "TMZ" website, the new nightly TV series is a nasty, snide, and vindictive visit to the sidewalks and velvet ropes of Hollywood. It's a hand-held shame machine.
The "TMZ" extreme-gossip phenomenon is a product of the era of cellphone recorders, the Paris Hilton sex tape, the Smoking Gun website, and viral video. The Marquis of Queensberry-like rules between celebrities and the paparazzi have long ago gone by. But now, with portable video recorders and Internet distribution, the boxing match has reached even greater heights of indignity and speed. "TMZ" has established itself as premier arbiter of the most brazen invasions of privacy ever in the titular "thirty-mile zone" of Hollywood. Surely Alec Baldwin, whose cellphone tirade counts as one of TMZ's biggest gets, would agree.
In short, "TMZ," which airs nightly at 6 on Channel 25, is evil.
But there are mitigating factors to consider. For one thing, many, many celebrities need and like "TMZ," despite its lack of TLC. They crave the attention, particularly if, like Lohan, or Hilton, or Britney Spears, or Courtney Love, they have little talent for anything other than whipping up scandal. They may feign impatience and anger when the "TMZ" cameras stare them in the face; but they consistently put themselves in harm's way.
This week on the syndicated series, a number of stars were shown openly courting the "TMZ" cameramen, including Andy Dick, Gary Dourdan from "CSI," and George Clooney, who has given up his anti-tabloid activism of the 1990s. It's not just the ordinary folks on "Big Brother" who are exhibitionistic narcissists desperate for an audience.
Plus, while "TMZ" is evil, it's honest, straight-up, we're-sleazy-for-showing-it-and-you're-sleazy for-watching-it evil. "TMZ" is bottom-of-the-barrel TV and proud of it. This week, "ET" delivered an excruciating piece of exploitation - showing infant Dannielynn Birkhead watching film of her dead mother, Anna Nicole Smith - in the guise of a touching vignette. That kind of guilt-free packaging, which People magazine also employs for readers plagued by conscience, is creepily fraudulent. The subtext is, "Let's pretend to be nice while we're being scuzzy." If you're going to be a bottom feeder, at least admit it.
On "TMZ," the same Dannielynn material would probably be handled with the unconcealed snarkiness of an Internet flame. When the website TMZ breaks stories - with Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade and Michael Richards's racist tirade among them - it doesn't pull punches. The show is tirelessly direct, even making crude fun of its subjects with tabloid camp, calling Katie Holmes "Scientolomom" and telling Pamela Anderson, "We support everything - and everyone - that you do." In one segment this week, "TMZ" went so far as to report on which American celebrities are acceptable to terrorists (Mel Gibson, Sean Penn) and which are not (Madonna).
As the show zips along, the open sarcasm is everywhere, both in the voice-over scripts and in the graphics. We see an Adolf Hitler mustache painted on Gibson's mug shot, and we see instant slo-mo replays of Dourdan's comments to the cameraman, to prove that he's slurring his words. The sneering tone would bring a tear to Mary Hart's soft cheek.
The show begins with a meeting at the TMZ office, where host Harvey Levin - who is also the website's managing editor - takes pitches from his reporters and photographers. This week, one man promised footage of actress Michelle Rodriguez, formerly of "Lost," admitting that milk gives her gas. Another bragged about how he had taken footage of Corey Haim in which the actor looks fantastically awful. Woo-hoo!
On "TMZ," there's no pretense of respect or kindness. That means that if you like even the littlest bit of sugar in your cup of steamy gossip, you ought to look elsewhere.