'Armed & Famous': CBS's Keystone Cop-Out

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

First, be glad you don't live in Muncie, Ind., where police waste time and money playing patty-cake cop with semi-celebrities -- or at least did for the taping of "Armed & Famous," a new CBS reality romp that begs to be renamed "Armed & Fatuous." The show, which exists mainly to be ridiculed, features five feeble excuses for stars pretending to learn how to pretend to be policemen on the Muncie force. It makes its debut tonight at 8.

Is there any point in subjecting such programs to critical appraisal? There is to the extent that they're symptomatic -- symptoms of a fad that has become a plague. The shows self-deconstruct; they're like third-generation parodies. In a reversal of show-business tradition, some of these programs are bad on purpose. Not only does no one expect them to be good, no one wants them to be.

The producers hope instead that viewers will get a certain satisfaction from hooting and howling at the awfulness of it all. "Armed & Famous" rushes by "awful" and heads straight for "abominable," but it's not even that much fun to laugh at because you can sense the cynicism -- the contempt for viewers and for the medium of television -- simmering on the other side of the screen.

Obviously most TV shows are little more than time-killers. But there's killing time and there's beating it to death with a stick.

Or a billy club. Or shooting it in the head -- because, yes, the "celebrity" cops in "Armed & Famous" are truly armed if not actually famous. In tonight's premiere, they shoot their guns only during training sessions but still, what kind of recklessness is it to give loaded guns to blundering numskulls and then stand back to watch the fun? Ho ho, there goes an innocent bystander crumpling to the sidewalk.

From the first words of the pseudo-stentorian announcer, "A&F" has "they can't be serious" written all over it.

"Tonight five celebrities will leave behind the glitter and glamour of Hollywood to become actual police officers in Muncie, Indiana!" he bellows. Then he introduces the "brave new recruits": Jack Osbourne, whose only fame comes from a previous reality show, "The Osbournes"; Jason "Wee-Man" Acuna, 4-foot 7-inch jester seen on MTV's "Jackass"; retired pro wrestler Trish Stratus; "recording artist and author" (she is?) LaToya Jackson; and, get this, "international television icon Erik Estrada!"

Well, there goes "icon." What choice now but to retire it from the English language? It's been devalued down to nada.

Estrada, of course, played Ponch on the slick '70s cop series "CHiPs," so he gets as much mileage as possible from the connection. He's bursting and gushing with enthusiasm, even when he gets Tasered in the back during a peculiarly sadistic portion of the training segment, which takes up the first 20 minutes of the hour.

"I don't like falling on the ground," says Jackson, that noted "author," during the usual aftermath comments that are spliced into the show -- the stars looking back on their fascinating (but only to them) experience. Jackson has big lovely eyes that are good on television but it's hard to take your eyes off her two pyramid-shaped nostrils, remarkably similar to the schnozola sported by her wacky brother, Michael. Perhaps one shouldn't jeer, as Jackson obviously paid dearly for that strange configuration. To quote Lorenz Hart: "Cutting up your face to spite your nose is too good for the average man."

The stars learn how to do "vehicle stops," and how to perform what look like illegal searches and seizures, and wrestler Stratus declares, "This is way more intense than I could ever have expected." They move on to the vagaries of the "50,000-volt Taser" and then, booms the announcer, comes the next lesson: "Real guns, real ammo, real danger!"

Nighttime in Muncie is no -- well, it's no daytime in Muncie. Teamed with five real cops (Estrada's partner is a blonde who looks gorgeous enough to be a bigger star than he ever was), our little faux famous friends tour the city, looking for trouble. "Muncie is quite different from L.A.," observes Jackson, who insists on a tablecloth and a finger bowl when her partner takes her out for peanuts at the Texas Roadhouse.

"Midnight!" says the unseen voice. "On the streets of Muncie, crime doesn't sleep, and neither do our celebrity cops!" When Estrada finds himself inside Muncie's version of a crack house, he's surprised to discover the dealer is a toothless granny in her 80s. "This is the wrong way to meet you, Ponch," she says, laughing all the way to the police station in the back seat of the cop car.

But these details may inadvertently make the show sound mildly amusing. It isn't. In addition to epitomizing the trend toward cheaper and cheaper prime-time programming, "Armed & Famous" represents another unhappy trend: This insane business of trying to pass off game-playing as entertainment on a massive, inescapable scale. Games are a vicarious experience in the first place. Watching people play games -- whether the game is poker or make-believe cop -- is vicarious vicariousness.

It's a form of "reality" that only makes television less real -- and, inevitably, less worth having around.

Armed & Famous (one hour) premieres tonight at 8 on WUSA (Channel 9).

© 2007 The Washington Post Company