'I'm from Rolling Stone' and I'm Compelling TV

Best o' the new realities.

By Shannon Rupp 10 Jan 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Jann and regular people

Who would have predicted that the popularity of those dumb reality TV shows featuring psychopaths in action, dwarf tossing and would-be adulterers would auger in a new breed of smart, entertaining documentary series that do what all the best journalism does: explore the human experience.

I'm from Rolling Stone (premiering tomorrow, Jan. 11) is a series about six interns spending a summer at the music mag. The possibility of a year-long job for one of them is dangled as the ultimate prize. DanceLife, produced by the tedious Jennifer Lopez, debuts Jan. 19 and follows a handful of Terpsichores trying to make a living as show dancers for pop music tours and videos. Both air on MTV Canada (basic cable 94 in the Lower Mainland, channel 83 in Victoria).

What sets these series apart from the usual reality offerings is that the subjects are real people going about their real lives. Shows like Survivor and America's Next Top Model go through elaborate testing and interviews to determine the "regular" people who will populate their artificial landscape. (I've long suspected that they get that special combination of contestants by using the Psychopathy Checklist developed by UBC professor emeritus Bob Hare.)

Real voyeurism

But both of the MTV series are similar to traditional documentaries in that they reveal something about the worlds of dance and journalism, as well as the sort of people attracted to them. Only they're better, because they're not boring.

The show about the budding scribes is the more compelling of the two because the characters are well sketched and camera captures the telling details used to colour the best magazine journalism.

Seasoned hacks will recognize the six young writers as typical of the sort of people who take a run at journalism. After viewing the first episode, my fellow ink-stained wretches and I are already betting on who gets the long-term gig at Rolling Stone, but anyone who has spent any time in the corporate world will want to play along. As the youngsters observe when they first get to the New York offices of the magazine that once defined hip: "It looks like Enron or something."


The horses...er, interns are, first, Russell, 25, whom I've dubbed The Natural. The San Francisco boy started writing during an adolescence spent in juvie hall, and, although he has only a snippet of post-secondary education, the editor confirms what watching him do interviews suggests: he has chops. Unfortunately, he's also the kind of reporter who likes to take the piss out of authority figures, which -- mark my words -- will be his downfall. He probably would have been a star in the 1920s or the 1960s, when so-called new journalists had cachet, but journalism's heyday is over and Hunter S. Thompson and the legendary rock 'n' roll writer Lester Bangs are dead. My prediction: this guy will carve a swath as a freelancer and have a good career in new media, but won't last long in the corporate environment. But one valiant (and charmingly naive) editor I know insists that talent will always matter most and puts his money on this pony.

There's Krishteen, 23, (Little Miss Narcissist) who is so self-involved it's hard to imagine her taking time from talking about herself to interview anyone. Her opening scene shows her getting the call from legendary publisher Jann Wenner, one of the most famous names in journalism, whom she has never heard of. But don't count her out. I know of at least three women like her who have all done just fine in the news biz. Oh, they're appalling journalists, sure, but they get hired because of their tenacity and their unwavering belief in their own fabulousness. Usually they go to TV, but I know one who conned her way into a book contract writing about her time as a "foreign correspondent" -- going to clubs in exotic locales. She inhabits a curious world in which the people she interviews never have last names, but that hasn't hurt her career. I doubt Little Miss Narcissist will snag the prize, but I predict a bright future for her in the age of bimbo journalism. But one of my buddies, pointing to the success of Leah McLaren and Rebecca Eckler, has no doubt she'll win. Well, maybe, if she can ever get over bitching about having to do rewrites...

Colin, 19, is The Neurotic. Like Krishteen he's dreadfully self-involved, but in his case it's because he's anxious and insecure. And a bit of a doofus. Again, he'll be hard-pressed to be a reporter if he can't get beyond his endless navel-gazing. Then again, he can always do a creative writing degree.

Teka, 25, is The Activist. Immediately we know she's lesbian because she's quick to point out her "marginalized" status as both black and gay. I'd say advocacy journalism is her future, but one of my pals pointed out that Americans are big on affirmative action and she's a two-fer. He thinks she has a swell chance.

No one thinks Australian Peter, 22, (The Wildcard) has a snowball's chance down-under. He's a party boy, with an athletic scholarship to Berkeley, who may have some deeply hidden writing talent, but he blows his first assignment and excuses himself because he was drunk. Now, we all enjoy the antics of colleagues with colourful substance abuse problems as long as their copy sings. Or at least hums a little tune. But using booze as an excuse for bad writing? That's just offside, as the sports writers say.

My pick?

My money's on The Dark Horse, Krystal, 24, an earnest young thing who knows which side her bread is buttered on. When Wenner calls to announce the good news, she recognizes and flatters him. "It's like getting a call from the president," she says, which allows Wenner to quip: "Yeah, but he'd be sending you to Iraq." Right then and there she made the uber-boss feel good about himself: he's not the sellout everyone says, he's still an edgy guy challenging authority. The Dark Horse displays a talent for ingratiating herself that no one can teach, and it will serve her well in any business. Never mind that her tortured, purple prose is so bad that it's actually embarrassing to read. She's obviously diligent, sincere (or able to fake sincerity) and has just the right combination of wide-eyed-enthusiasm-sans-threatening-talent that appeals to so many middle-aged bosses.

Fifteen years as a dance critic taught me that the jocks of the arts world are just as smart and complex as any other artists, but DanceLife's opening episode seems content to deliver dumb-dancer clichés. There's one young woman who has left home physically -- but not financially or emotionally -- for the glory of dancing backup for the likes of Justin Timberlake. She's the economic burden every parent fears when a child announces she's going to be a dancer. The others are an indistinct collection of semi-successes and wannabes who hoof it to all the cattle calls and bitch and snipe at each other between combinations -- and that's just the guys. The cliché about dancers is that they're petty, jealous and insecure; although, in my experience, they're no worse than any other labour group in which supply exceeds demand.

The other problem is that we endure much too much of the dreaded J-Lo auditioning the kids and treating us to her wisdom about dance life, when what we want is more about the dancers.

That said, the audition clips are worth the price of the diva's self-promoting drivel, especially when the B-boys take to their stylish gymnastics. Their abilities are breathtaking, and it's worth watching if only to see how talented a dancer has to be just to fail.

Of the two, the tale of the baby journos is more engaging because it gets at what drives its characters and is likely to prompt the most discussion. The show has already debuted on MTV in the U.S. and Rolling Stone has a chat board to discuss the interns -- can handicapping be far behind?  [Tyee]

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