American Idol had scarcely wrapped up its season before yet another talent show sprang up: NBC's Fame, starring the indomitable Debbie Allen as part judge, part boot-camp instructor, part mom to a group of aspiring singer-dancers. There's not much new in showbiz these days, as Allen's career trajectory will attest. Here she's reprising her art-school teacher role from the 1980 Fame movie, which she followed up by directing a TV series spin-off. You might say this is Allen's third attempt at living forever, and one can only hope the third time's the charm.
The show also proves that there's not much new in the world of "reality" TV, where producers have sown rows of talent-show dragon's teeth in the hope of duplicating American Idol's smash success. In commercial breaks for Fame, NBC let us know what other treats it has in store: a show for the funniest person in America and most talented senior citizen. "Go Grandma," hoots one spry woman. "It's your birthday!"
Grandma easily has more humor and energy than most of Fame's contestants, who meld together in a blur of overplucked eyebrows, baggy pants and strained smiles. The air of desperate youth hangs over the proceedings, as nearly everyone is a waitress, food server, messenger or peon in the corporate world. They have big dreams away from their hellish minimum-wage jobs. There's quite a story to be had in the fact that these overeager contestants would be willing to take a chance on the vagaries of Hollywood over their dead-end employment. One woman got in a car accident and was fired by her boss for attending the audition; you wonder what will become of her if she isn't one of the show's anointed.
Escape from underpaid drudgery isn't the only reason the contestants have lined up for hours to audition, of course. There's also the siren allure of fame itself -- one's shiny-eyed image shown to an adoring public, which is reassured that these folks are just regular people, like us! Indeed, Fame wants to close that Möbius strip of celebrity and reality completely, with viewers themselves offered a chance to audition for a "spoiler contestant" spot.
Increasing the echo-chamber feel of the show is just how much many of the contestants look like other celebrities, and how so many aspiring hopefuls selected the same damn songs to sing. A barrage of baby Christinas, Britneys and Whitneys barrels through -- all yelping, growling and meowing at either Alicia Keyes' much-abused "Fallin'" or Chicago's "All That Jazz." If those were my songs, I would sue for slander.
There are a few notable originals, however, such as a drag queen wearing a Hooters shirt and several Asian American men who bust dance moves and sing like they've got years of nerdy stereotyping to put to rest. Perhaps that's the saving grace of Fame and the other reality talent shows: They demonstrate such a rich cultural cross-pollination. An "Asian boy singing, 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough,'" Allen says with pleased amazement. And indeed, the sight is as cheering as watching American Idol's newly crowned Ruben Studdard -- the "Round Mound of Sound," the "Velvet Teddy Bear" -- launch into such wistful white folks' ballads as "Superstar" or "Imagine" and give them a whole new spin.
Nonconformity can only go so far, however, as judge Carnie Wilson lets us know. As former *NSYNC schlockmeister and Fame host Joey Fatone informs us, "She's lost over a hundred pounds!" It's as if Wilson rebuilt Iraq single-handedly. After the first nubile contestant screeches her way through a number, Wilson has a few criticisms but mostly drools with hunger for the contestant's taut body. "Let's start with the body. I'm so distracted," she says, almost licking her chops. I fear what will happen when some of the chunkier contestants get up there; Carnie may have a hard time not harping on their "weight issues."
Whoever gets through the Fame mill will get contracts, agents, recording deals, a whole set of goodies. Fatone sounds a bit envious -- sign him up for that! After all, it's been a long time since *NSYNC was a functioning, much-worshipped band. Allen has only two words in response, "Oh, Joey," as she pats his arm. And that's the fallout of fame: You don't live forever; you only live as long as someone remembers you. The Fame kids should think about that little exchange, about Joey's hints of sadness, Allen's commiseration. Allen warmly encourages contestants who fall apart: "You just have to finish what you started," she says. Unfortunately, starting down the path toward fame often leads right back to the beginning -- to obscurity, that dead-end job and bitter dreams of immortality.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor.