Imagine the Menendez story without any killings. Would anybody watch? Obviously, this is a proposition not really worth considering -- but the Fox network has considered it anyway and come up with "The Princes of Malibu," a supposedly nonfiction comedy about two ne'er-do-well brothers misbehaving on their stepfather's 22-acre, $40 million seaside estate.
Ah to be young, rich and stupid -- the Idiot's American Dream. The brothers -- Brody (great name), 21, and Brandon, 23 -- get to live that dream in a high-rent district like none other, except that hardly anybody rents. It's more of a high-buy district, though homes on the beach in Malibu can sometimes be leased from their owners for 10, 20, 30 thousand dollars a week if, for instance, said owner goes on location making a movie in New Zealand or Toronto.
Not even the shameless Foxfolk are trying to pass "Princes" off as a reality show, preferring to call it "unscripted." But the basic situation and most of the developments come off as baldly contrived, with the participants playing themselves rather than being themselves and basically just making amateurish home movies for national consumption.
The premiere, at 8:30 tomorrow night on Channel 5, immediately brings to mind Paris Hilton's "The Simple Life" series in that it allows us to spy on the wealthy and take some sort of comfort in their fumbles and bumbles. In the end, though, they're still rich and we're the ones gaping through the window. Who gets the last laugh? Fox, of course, if enough people are desperate enough for diversion to watch this thing.
Production-wise, it's a mess, with edits accompanied by the sound of a whip-like golf swing and the narration poorly written and performed. Twice within the first 10 minutes, the writers use a trite phrase that has to be partly bleeped; it has to do with a certain substance hitting "the fan."
As the show begins, we meet David Foster, a rich and creepy music producer who enjoys the luxury of being able to walk around looking like a homeless codger, unshaven and baggy-pantsed. In marrying Linda Thompson, ex-wife of Olympic star Bruce Jenner, Foster acquired her two sons, neither of whom sees much value in work, study or responsibility, and certainly no reason to pursue them.
"This has gone too far," father Foster declares, and that's before he and Thompson return home to find the boys celebrating Brody's 21st birthday with a wild backyard party for 300 people. "Out, out, out, out, out," Foster tells some of the guests, while others are ordered to "go, go, go, go, go." Having pooped the party, Daddy convenes a "family meeting" for the following day.
The show seems designed to exploit generational differences; the young are likely to side with the boys and their talent for partying, while the old may think they need to be reined in. When viewers of whatever age behold Foster lumbering around his lavish mansion shutting off the lights to save a few bucks, however, they're likely to see him as the cheap old sleaze he appears to be. At the party, he demands to smell the boys' breath, but they're legally of drinking age, and besides, if he's made his money in the record business, he's seen people stoned on substances a lot more potent than liquor.
"Princes" might be satisfying if the boys eventually teamed up with their mother and threw the old man out, but that doesn't seem likely to happen.
After Dad shuts down their credit cards, even to the point of stranding them unexpectedly at Nobu, the ultra-pricey (and, to judge from the footage on the show, ultra-ugly) Malibu restaurant, the boys devise ways to earn money, one of them a carwash on the grounds with bikini-clad cuties soaping up the vehicles -- and each other. And Brody. The carwash creates a traffic jam that strands Chaka Khan, recording star of yesteryear, in her Mercedes or Cadillac or whatever it is.
Brody's buddy Spencer, after justifiably asking "Chaka WHO?," makes a gracious offer: "I'll V.I.P. you" up to the house in a golf cart, he says, inventively turning an old abbreviation into a verb, or maybe that's already been done. Peeks at future episodes, provided by Fox, indicate that the boys' schemes will include trying to sell some of their father's Grammy statuettes on eBay and erecting a makeshift drive-in theater on the plush, lush grounds of the estate.
It's almost frightening to admit, but the more one sees of these guys, the fonder one gets of them. Brody could become a star.
In the '30s, people escaped from the grim reality of the Depression by going to see lavish movie musicals and other such frolic. Perhaps shows like "The Princes of Malibu" are the contemporary equivalent for a society quaking from terrorism and mourning the victims of a highly questionable war. Of course, the escapism of the '30s often had class and wit, but either of those would be a lot to ask of Fox or of yet another "unscripted" TV peeper on any network.
This isn't entertainment for a post-literate culture; it's entertainment for an anti-literate culture -- an exercise not so much in killing time as torturing it into imbecility. For all that, if you do watch you may find yourself rooting for the poor little rich boys and inclined to defend (if not to the death) their right to fritter.
The Princes of Malibu premieres tomorrow night at 8:30 on Channel 5.