Watching the premiere episode of VH1's "Confessions of a Teen Idol," it's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. The "refreshingly honest" ( see VH1 promo notes ) hook of this show is that fame is an addiction that drives many young stars onto various paths of self-destruction, and this show is going to help a group of them, now adults, find it again.
Presumably, VH1 will also be sending cases of Champagne to their local AA meetings.
Of the eight former teen idols showcased on the show, the best known is the host, Scott Baio, who recently recharged his career on VH1 with the reality show “Scott Baio Is 45 . . . and Single.” Still, he manages to use his former Chachi pinup status to express brotherhood with the seven actual participants while remaining safely aloof from the bachelor pad crucible in which the real "action" takes place.
There, the term "teen idol" has been granted the sort of elasticity one might suspect would be necessary to cast a show like this one. The still rather dreamy Christopher Atkins (he of "The Blue Lagoon"), Jamie Walters (" Beverly Hills, 90210") and Jeremy Jackson ("Baywatch") may have been bona fide teen idols, but the rest -- David Chokachi ("Baywatch"), Bill Hufsey (TV's "Fame"), Eric Nies (the original "The Real World") and Adrian Zmed ("T.J. Hooker") -- well, perhaps they came after my Teen Beat-reading days, but they seem more like former teen stars than teen idols.
Be that as it may, they all have the basic where-are-they-now requirement. Except Zmed, who works as a singer and dancer on a cruise ship, none are full-time performers. Atkins, at least according to the Internet Movie Database, has kept his hand in showbiz, but his real job is building swimming pools; Nies, who has appeared on fitness videos and "Real World" reunion competitions, is a vegan life coach; Walters is a firefighter-paramedic; Jackson is still working to overcome drug and alcohol problems; and so on.
Still, they share the same basic desire: to get back into that corrosive limelight.
To do this, they are each willing, apparently, to share digs with six other grown men (Jackson, rather touchingly, points out that this will not be a problem for him as he has served time in jail and been in and out of rehab), undergo group therapy administered by "celebrity psychology expert" Cooper Lawrence and, during the first episode anyway, endure being pranked by Baio and child star turned producer Jason Hervey ("The Wonder Years"). All in the contradictory and more than unsettling pursuit of exploring their addiction to fame while actively courting it once again.
It is not a competition but a drama. No one will get voted off the soundstage, though some may try to flee in disgust that may be real or scripted. In many ways, "Confessions" is like "Celebrity Rehab" without the rehab, which turns out to be a large and significant omission. As shamefully entertaining as it might be to see what has happened to these young stars, to observe the changes that age and, in some cases, hard living have wrought, the premise of this show is such a naked submission to the most shallow and troubling aspect of our culture that it might require its own special rating.
In the endless discussion of the shared desire to resurrect their careers, none of these guys, not one , uses the word "acting" or even "performing." Over and over they repeat their desire for the fame, but none expresses the least interest in the work that would get them there. Now, no one expects a graduate of "Baywatch" or "T.J. Hooker" to wax rhapsodic about their midlife desire to play Hamlet or Willy Loman, but the lack of even lip service to the profession they hope to reenter is perhaps the most significant thing about "Confessions of a Teen Idol."
Fame isn't even fame anymore; it's just media exposure.
Gone is whatever tissue-thin belief remained that talent or skill or dedication is part of the equation. All you need to succeed in entertainment, according to "Confessions of a Teen Idol," is the desire and the commitment to not act like a complete jerk. As Lawrence tells them with all the earnestness of a self-made expert, she is there to help them get back on top. And she is the help they need. Not a director or playwright or, heaven forbid, acting coach, but a celebrity expert to help them work through the scars of early fame.
Watching these guys preen, watching Baio and Hervey smugly rationalize humiliating grown men on TV, all I could think of were the countless hardworking, dedicated actors in this town who have watched their fees slip and their opportunities dry up as reality shows like this one have steadily replaced all the comedies and dramas and procedurals that once kept them employed.
Should a miracle occur and one or two prove they still have what it takes (Atkins has the looks, but my money's on Zmed, who remains a dedicated performer), they will find that work is harder to come by than it was in their heyday.
But then as "Confessions" makes abundantly and unabashedly clear, it's not about the work or the talent. It's all about feeding the addiction.