PASADENA, CALIF. — Poet T.S. Eliot may have written about the end of the world, but if the pundits have it right this time, fellow Brit Ozzy Osbourne is actually helping it along.
The hard rocker has spawned a hit show, and now his MTV reality sitcom, "The Osbournes" has produced its own offspring. The first of many, "The Anna Nicole Smith Show," rolls out on E! Aug. 4. Following in short order, new video-diary shows will reveal the daily lives of such diverse celebs as Liza Minnelli, Cybill Shepherd, Gene Simmons, and of course, Brian "Kato" Kaelin.
"This is a culture that is losing its sense of self and replacing it with a grab for fame or attention on a grand scale," says media critic George Eastman, president of The Institute of Media Research in Massachusetts. "The poet T.S. Eliot began writing about the hollow modern man reaching for something outside to fill up his emptiness. 'The Hollow Men' is a poem before its time."
The producers of the Smith show say they're just following where the culture takes them. "When the Osbournes came out, it was a no-brainer to us," says Mark Sonnenberg, executive vice president of E! Entertainment. "Let's put the camera on her and let's do a show."
The cameras follow Ms. Smith; her assistant, Kimmy; her lawyer Howard Stern (not the radio celeb); her Prozac-ingesting pup, Sugar-Pie; and her 16-year-old son, Michael, from "when I get up to when I go to bed," says the former model. While the cameras are rolling, Smith engages in a conversation about her sex life, talks to her breasts, and crawls beneath a piano, where she gets stuck in the piano bench.
The show also features Michael telling Smith that he doesn't like the cameras. Despite his objections, the cameras go into his room and, according to the producers and his mother, he remains in the show. "We had a discussion about that," says Smith. "He's doing it because he loves me and he wants to be supportive of mom, I mean, me."
The rash of video-verité diaries, including families where even the children's privacy is sacrificed, are just the latest sign of a culture in decline, says Eastman. "Extreme exhibitionism is actually a masochistic intrusion of privacy," says the clinical psychologist. "It is particularly disturbing when this extreme form of narcissism drags children into its wake."
While not commenting specifically on the merits of Smith's show, pop culture observer Robert Thompson, of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York, doesn't believe the genre itself should inspire such dire predictions. To him, these video diarists are mining new creative territory as they "get a chance to re-invent themselves and write a new narrative every day."
While critics have given mixed reviews to the ongoing Osbourne show, they have dubbed the Smith show everything from a slow-motion train wreck to simply very bizarre. At minimum, when Ozzy Osbourne looks like a standard-bearer for traditional values, we know the bar for normal has moved. (He recently told a German TV show that he would give back every penny in his contract if the show affected his children badly.) The tagline of Smith's show is "It's not supposed to be funny. It just is."
As Eliot might put it, it's not supposed to be a whimper, either. It just is.