TMZ, Sleaze Central

Website, TV show open the gates of celebrity hell.

By Steve Burgess 12 Oct 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess regularly reviews TV and films for The Tyee.

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TMZ tops the O.J. beat.

Back in the glory days of the (first) O.J. trial, the National Enquirer took on a new role. Once a despised tabloid, later a merely tawdry tabloid, the Enquirer suddenly found itself saddled with something close to respect. News organizations were forced to acknowledge that the Enquirer's no-holds-barred methods were consistently yielding real scoops on the O.J. story. Ted Koppel's ABC News Nightline even did a feature about the Enquirer newsroom. With mainstream media outlets suddenly obsessed with a tabloid news story, the most famous tabloid was eating their lunch. This was their turf.

2007, and the tabloid-ization of news has proceeded apace. Now comes the new star of sleaze: TMZ, a gossip website that has spawned its own TV show. Like the Enquirer before it, TMZ has taken sustenance from O.J.-related nonsense -- the recent audio recording of a hotel room confrontation involving O.J. and a dealer in sports collectibles was leaked first to TMZ before making its way to 24-hour rotation on American TV news outlets.

TMZ (it stands for "Thirty Mile Zone," a reference to the L.A. area, within which all meaningful human activity takes place) is the new bull goose of the gossip biz. Like a parade of star-packed limos heading for Mr. Chow, the website/TV show has consistently attracted amateur video footage of bad star behaviour. Whatever else it may be, TMZ is a celebrity scoop factory. It was TMZ that broke Mel Gibson's drunken racist rant, Alec Baldwin's bizarre voicemail message to his young daughter, Michael Richards' racist tirade in an L.A. comedy club, and any number of Paris and Britney tidbits. As well, their own cameras are always filming at the clubs and hangouts where today's dissolute Hollywood young congregate.

They'll always have Paris

Harvey Levin is the man behind TMZ and host of the TV show. The format is simple -- Levin is depicted in newsroom story meetings with his younger and much hipper-looking staffers, who give him the rundown on this week's dirt. Then they play video of the aforementioned dirt.

To watch the half-hour show, which lurks on CTV weeknights at the odd hour of 1:07 a.m., is to gaze upon a vision of celebrity Hell -- squabbles, screaming, stupidity, and the endless desperate need to demonstrate star power. TMZ revels in the ongoing pecking-order game played out every night at velvet ropes around L.A. An oft-replayed clip shows fading bad-girl actress Tara Reid trying and failing to talk her way into a club while celebrity Satan Paris Hilton breezes past on her way in. There it is in a single clip: desperation, humiliation and Paris. The TMZ trifecta.

All but the most gossip-hungry will regularly find themselves asking, "Who's this, now?" as the parade of morons stumbles by. TMZ documents a miraculous symbiotic process of the sort Nature often offers -- people who become notorious in some way then keep the spotlight simply by being reliable sources of drunken, asinine or just cheesy behaviour. Which TMZ then simultaneously mocks and perpetuates. Ever heard of Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag? I hadn't until the minor thespians got anointed #1 Media Whores by TMZ, complete with video clips of their shameless media whoring. Hey, it's working. Andy Dick, once a regular on the sitcom Newsradio and now mostly a troubled guy with a drinking problem, is still a big star on TMZ thanks to regular scrapes with paparazzi, bouncers, and bystanders.

Britney smokes in gas station!

If there is redeeming value in TMZ -- a deductive stretch that few would attempt -- it lies in its ongoing depiction of the appalling, tedious, solipsistic, attention-grubbing realm that is the glamorous L.A. scene. Never has this shallow pool been plumbed so thoroughly. No sane or sensible person could watch this awful spectacle and crave inclusion. Which still leaves plenty of folks, but at least the next generation of harassed celebrities will then be drawn from the ranks of the deserving.

And every once in awhile TMZ performs a genuine service, as it did in unmasking tangible evidence of the much-discussed anti-Semitism that informed Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.

As for the recent video clip of Britney smoking at a gas station, well, maybe TMZ is really a science program: Darwin's theories in action, every night on the fabulous streets of L.A.

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