I think I've mentioned this before, but one of my simple and cardinal rules as a critic goes like this: If you haven't seen something, you aren't allowed to insult it in print, at least not its quality.

This is why, no matter juicy a punchline might seem to be, you will never hear me call a movie "Worse than 'White Chicks'" or a reality show "More desperate and embarrassing than 'The Bachelorette.'"

And that is why, on Monday (June 1) night when I could have gone to the gym, taken in a movie, read a book or tended to my potted tree, I was watching NBC's "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here." Because if I want to be able to rant about NBC's latest contribution to the death of network programming -- a difficult task given summer's already parched wasteland --  I have to put in at least a little effort beforehand.

The disappointment is that as bad as "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here" is, it clearly isn't the death of network programming. You know this and I know this, even if my love for hyperbole commands me to say otherwise. What is is, though, is a mixture of strident annoyance and  poorly produced tedium. 

[Review of Monday's two-hour "I'm a Celebrity..." premiere after the break.]

The "I'm a Celebrity" format has been a huge hit around the world, but the only time it was attempted on American TV, a short run on ABC, it tanked and it tanked hard. Part of the problem may have been that the show's title would seem to require celebrities and the winner of ABC's season, Chris Judd, was best known for a brief marriage to a woman who isn't so famous herself these days. [And if you have to look it up, that just proves my point even moreso.]

NBC's hoping to resurrect the franchise on these shores with a group of reality TV retreads and an assortment of has-beens and barely-weres. The last additions to the show were Patti Blagojevich, a celebrity because her husband disgraced the state of Illinois and was legally forbidden to appear on the show himself, and the comedy duo of Frangela, who are respectable and amusing working comics, but aren't "celebrities" by any stretch of the imagination.

The network is stripping "I'm a Celebrity..." airing it four nights a week in primetime, suggesting an insatiable appetite for a show without any structure or incentive at all, at least not one evidence in the two-hour premiere, which included an eating challenge, a leadership challenge and nearly 110 minutes of celebrity self-justification.

It won't be the worst thing in human history if NBC turns over a full month of its programming to allow Spencer Pratt to spread his virulent, douchiness from basic cable to the masses. But the combination of a series desperate to fill an hour per night with drama and a shameless fame whore with no dignity of decency or restraint means that "I'm a Celebrity" is going to be little more than "The Spencer Pratt Show" until he exhausts himself or the American people tire of him and vote to eliminate him. If the latter never occurs, can NBC just say it's giving the people what they want? Or what they deserve? As I said, it won't be the worst thing in human history. It'll just be sad.

For its first hour, Spencer and his mentally handicapped bride Heidi wreaked havoc in the Costa Rican jungle and they actually did something I never would have thought possible: They made me feel true pity for Stephen Baldwin and Sanjaya Malakar. Twice, Spencer and Heidi threatened to quit, all within the first 24 hours. Each time they came back as if the cameras had somehow stopped rolling in their absence. Spencer called up NBC Bigwig Ben Silverman and complained that "this cast is devaluing our fame." And the sad thing is that he's probably right. Lou Diamond Phillips seems like a  nice and reasonable guy and I wish him only the best, but why do I want to see how he's going to react to this sort of survivalist situation? I'd be more impressed to see how he'd react to a regular job on a successful TV series. Hasn't Sanjaya Malakar proven that he'll do anything for fame? Why is it surprising that he'd drink a milkshake of intestines. Janice Dickinson has creeped me out on at least three different reality shows. Why should this be any different? 

Spencer and Heidi, as disgusting as they are, are the show's only celebrities either at their peak or, heaven help us all, still in ascendency. That's why Ben Silverman would take their call.

And maybe that's why when the show decided to give Patti Blagojevich 10 minutes of network television time to rip into the forces of evil currently persecuting her husband, the producers poked Spencer to instigate the conversation. Patti cried and railed against The Media and the other Outsiders trying to keep her husband from doing right by Illinois and by the end of her speech, Spencer was saying he'd vote for Blago for President and Heidi was leading an extended prayer. I guess this will count as Rod Blagojevich's trial before a jury of his peers before The Media and The Establishment conspire against him elsewhere.

The show's core is always going to be about celebrity entitlement and insuperability, but couldn't it still be more entertaining?

The production will get tighter once the series gets going and structure is imposed through regular challenges an elimination, but for the premiere, the "I'm a Celebrity" producers were nearly on autopilot, letting the contestants sit around their oddly over-lit Costa Rican camp yelling at each other (or letting Spencer yell at everybody else). The leadership challenge? Two people held buckets for less than five minutes. The food challenge? Lots of eating of gross things, proving only that Sanjaya is a maniac. And the Immunity challenge? Relax in a kiddie pool with bugs. No great effort was put into making these challenges pop.

Hosts Damien Fahey and Myleene Klass are meant to be the eyes and ears of the audience, which means they add extra sarcasm and mockery. They don't add intelligence or a specific point-of-view to accompany said sarcasm and mockery. So it's like if Ryan Seacrest stood off to the side and just made fun of the bad "American Idol" contestants each week.

A last point I'd like to make: It's always great that celebrities do these shows for charity. Even Spencer and Heidi may make a few bucks for Feed the Children and American Red Cross, entirely by accident. And several of these alleged celebrities aren't actually famous or rich, so it's not as if they couldn't use the bucks themselves. Does Sanjaya have a source of income? Does anybody think Frangela is/are loaded? So this is very nice of all of them. 

See? I thought I'd end my review with a compliment. I also may tune in to "I'm a Celebrity" on Tuesday night to see if a tarantula ate Heidi. If, in fact, any of these celebrities is devoured by a wild (or trained) animal, I'll continue to watch. Would you believe I'd settle for a monkey flinging feces at Spencer?

 

Did you watch the premiere? Any thoughts to share?

 

 

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