Chasing Farrah, the seven-part reality series on TV Land that wraps up this week, was a late entrant in the celebrity “Welcome to My Life” genre, so it had to start with a twist: The first episode focused on whether Farrah Fawcett even wanted a reality show at all. The director pleaded, the producer drummed his fingers, and Farrah hemmed and hawed. Then she whipped out a video camera and declared she’d agree only if she could film the crew as well—to keep the show “honest,” she explained. And so Chasing Farrah began: The crew filmed Farrah as Farrah filmed the crew, the reality-show equivalent of those trigger-finger, pistols-drawn standoffs in Tarantino films.
As career-reclamation projects go, Chasing Farrah is mundane and, thus far, ineffective—it’s unlikely she’ll be hosting the Emmys anytime soon, though a chirpy cameo at the MTV Video Music Awards doesn’t seem out of the question. It was unseemly, in episode one, to watch the producers court her as though she were as desirable as Nefertiti and twice as famous, and a later episode in which Farrah visits the WTC site curdled into corrosive kitsch. But the show’s been notable as the latest example of celebrity encroachment into the reality genre, if only because stars weren’t supposed to be the ones doing the encroaching—it was supposed to be the other way around. In the protean days of Survivor and Big Brother, one of the most common laments about reality TV (among many) was that it would provide a well-lit stage for every shameless, fame-hungry civilian willing to bare a soul, a breast, or both. Reality serfs were going to storm the celebrity castle. Years later, though, the stars have peeked up over the ramparts; now they’re streaming out to join the party like loutish, unwanted guests.
For this we can blame Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, the Lewis and Clark of the genre. When Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica premiered in 2003, it seemed like a stunningly bad idea: Simpson was a faltering Britney Spears manqué, and Lachey a former boy-bander. But while Newlyweds poked gentle fun at the couple, the joke was on the show’s opponents, and now the couple’s careers are thriving as a postmillennial Donny and Marie. At the same time, Ozzy Osbourne was mumbling his way into America’s embrace, and bingo: Everyone from Anna Nicole Smith to blink-182 drummer Travis Barker (star of MTV’s Meet the Barkers) to, coming soon, Britney Spears has clued in to the genre’s regenerative powers.
Celebrities seem driven to these projects by a desire to expand their brand, show fans the “truth” (in Britney’s case), and, it seems, a Norma Desmond–esque conviction that their lives are so damned fascinating that to withhold a single detail is a measurable disservice, like shutting down a public utility. The stars’ goals and ours are entirely at odds—they want to be loved, we want a good laugh—so it’s a testament to the most successful of these shows, like Newlyweds, that, in the end, everyone gets his wish.
But as stars of increasing magnitude sign on—and whatever you think of Farrah, she’s undeniably a step up from Anna Nicole Smith—it only proves that reality shows never threatened celebrities in the first place. The problem with reality TV isn’t regular people striving to be celebrities, but celebrities striving to come off as regular people—a scenario that manages to misunderstand the appeal of both the reality genre and celebrity. Reality TV at its best (and there is such a thing) relies on the vulnerability of its participants, people who may be stirred by dubious motives but nonetheless take the generous risk of allowing cameras, and you, into raw moments of emotional revelation. A show like that centered around a celebrity could be fascinating, but who would ever agree to it? Especially when stars can offer instead a public glimpse at a public life—a project as risky and generous as a press release.