If the TV Academy were to start giving Emmys for Best Freak Show of the year, it would probably find itself with an unmanageably crowded category on its hands. Each week seems to bring new contenders, the object being to out-wacky the previous champ and leave pained viewers wondering, "What the hell was that?"
What it is tonight is "Being Bobby Brown," the latest attempt at the kind of screwball reality series pioneered by "The Osbournes" on MTV. This one, however, airs on Bravo, which is apparently trying to up its hipness quotient and, like everything else on TV except maybe Lawrence Welk reruns, lower the median age of its audience. Oh what crimes against taste and sanity have been committed in the pursuit of the 18-to-34 demographic.
And now this!
Bobby Brown is a rhythm-and-blues singer with a rap singer's rap sheet, an attractive and agile performer when in his prime whose appearances in recent years have mostly been in newspaper headlines and on newscasts. For whatever reason, Brown decided to open his life to the camera, which followed him around for eight weeks' worth of playing peekaboo. The first two half-hour episodes that resulted air tonight starting at 10, with the remainder following one at a time on Thursdays to come.
With his career not skyrocketing, and the curse of the Ghost of Has-Been-Yet-to-Be haunting him at every turn, Brown is actually a likely candidate for exposure on one of these reality productions. But Brown's wife is Whitney Houston, a singer of arguably more talent, popularity and class, so it is indeed something of a surprise to find her participating in the dubious festivities.
She does not come off well, looking less the superstar than a dowdily dressed hausfrau -- one given to repeated whining about being hungry, being tired and needing a vacation. She gets the last of those tonight when the family -- Brown, Houston and their children -- overrun the Bahamas. When the two lovebirds flutter through a hotel lobby, or dance through a hotel lobby, they make such a fuss that it would be hard to miss them. And yet at other times Houston utters the equivalent of "Oh, why won't they leave me alone?"
As one watches the pair trudge through their daily routines, mindful of the fact that one of the charges brought against Brown was that he physically attacked his wife, it's only natural to wonder what holds them together and what she still sees in him, now that he's gone plump. They do have a sort of Sonny-and-Cher thing going on, with Houston appearing to find her husband an entertaining nuisance and Brown doing everything but somersaults in his ongoing effort to impress her.
Brown suggests the typical sitcom husband, always winding up in the doghouse and forever formulating new avenues of escape.
The first episode opens with a telling vignette: Brown tries to convince apparently skeptical businessmen in a Chicago restaurant that he really is Bobby Brown: "I'm Bobby on a regular basis," he says. Then he has an idea. He turns around and poses with his arms behind his back, as if being led away in handcuffs: "Look! Do you recognize me now?"
In truth, the hour's worth of Bobby Browning that airs tonight, while it may often seem pointless, isn't exactly boring. Even so, what would be the impetus for tuning in again next week? Brown's legal problems are not spelled out clearly enough or in sufficient detail for them to be the suspenseful heart of the production.
Watching people sit around a hotel room wondering what to do isn't necessarily fascinating even if the people are famous. The fact that both Brown and Houston could well have their most famous days behind them doesn't help. Their lives seem sad much of the time, yet never rise to the status of tragedy. They're just there, and we're just here, and the camera is plopped in between.
The show provides some sort of revelation to those who think Brown must be, based on the headlines and many rumors, a wild and irresponsible playboy. While he does wander off to a bar by himself for a while, soaking up the adulation of women who approach him in rapid succession, in most scenes he is every bit the family man, one who dotes on his children. "My babies," he calls them, and of son Bobby Jr. he says: "That's my legacy. I shall live on forever."
Perhaps the poignant essence of the show can be found in Brown's forced jolliness and his vows, explicit or implicit, to reform. "It's a new day, baby," he touchingly tells Houston during one of several meals, calling her "my queen." A moment later, she is dutifully applying lotion to his feet in their hotel room, looking as though all is forgiven. The biggest questions, however, remain unanswered: "What are these people doing on television?" for one, and that American mantra "What else is on?" for another.
Being Bobby Brown begins tonight at 10 on Bravo with two half-hour episodes, with subsequent episodes Thursdays at 10 p.m.