Cognitive dissonance number one: At the same time as the do-nothing bureaucrats of the FCC declare themselves defenders of childhood innocence, viewers in droves are tuning out and turning off the hidden cameras of Big Brother, the widest complaint being that the program has provided insufficient salaciousness. In one of many fits of decency, the remaining houseguests turned down a $50,000 payoff for one to leave in exchange for a bodacious new roommate. This refusal would have represented a compelling show of integrity beneath klieg lights if it hadn't also made such dull viewing: Who wants to watch consensus? In sum, we disdain the media when it covets and grants our basest desires. Except when it doesn't, in which case we ignore it.
Cognitive dissonance number two: The first show hatched by Howard Stern's production company is--not unlike his bio-pic Private Parts--actually rather sweet. The program may in fact pose a kind of solution to the first dissonance: What the people apparently want is kindhearted vulgarity that picks on no one in particular. The population here is uniformly dopey, from the town's stuck-up mayor to the "fine cracker Americans" living on its fringes. Son of the Beach (9:00 p.m. Tuesdays on FX: Channel 48 in Minneapolis; 64 in St. Paul), a Baywatch parody on the model of the late Police Squad, tickles the funny bone (or, better, the lowered brow) with a surprisingly tasteful mixture of dopey double-entendres and witty byplay. (Like those high-culture gags on Sesame Street that are meant for parents, Beach's most clever moments presumably go over the head of Howard's slavering radio masses.)
But let's plunge right into the water. The show's nominal lead is soft-bellied blowhard Notch Johnson (Timothy Stack, last seen to good advantage in the late-night spoof Night Stand), a pasty comb-over who serves as head of "SPF 30." This crack(ed) beach-protection team mans Malibu Adjacent, but has yet to save a swimmer. The amiably stupid Notch, often filmed jiggling his way down the beach, is given to such insights as warning his staff to "keep an eye out for this little troublemaker, Osama bin Laden." Captaining his boat, the "Salty Johnson," provides Notch small consolation from his ludicrous back-story--his father was killed by a legendary tidal wave ("the Mesohorny"). (Word has it that Dad may well be played by the legendary Hasselhoff himself.) At the end of the show, Notch earnestly offers helpful wisdom on the order of "Plankton is a small planet near Krypton."
Notch's costars, cheesecake for the hordes of male teens forgoing their nightly wrestling fix, are notable for near-parodic bouncing chests. Pragmatic Kimberlee Clark (Kim Oja) is stuck in the sensible Alexandra Paul role, whereas birdbrain BJ Cummings (Jaime Bergman) and Jamaica St. Croix (Leila Arcieri) come perilously close to toppling over with every step. (Though they may have dodged the casting couch, Howard Stern has lusted after both women on the air.) Yet neither strikes me as remotely a victim of a lascivious industry: Arcieri is about to debut a snazzy Web site (www.leilaarcieri.com), and Bergman is leveraging the men's-mag circuit (FHM, Playboy, and on down the ladder) into a movie career. For beef there's Chip Rommel (Roland Kickinger), a real-life Austrian who sounds exactly like Terminator-era Ahnold and in fact looks very much like a cloned Seventies replica of his model. Roland, too, aims for higher things, sporting an impressively broad Web site (www.kickinger.com) that cross-promotes his exercise video, fitness club, glossies, and T-shirts. Ten years ago, actors would have considered this show an embarrassment to delete from the résumé when and if they hit it big; now it's the first step in empire-building.
Given the limited acting they're asked to provide, each of these performers is surprisingly funny. Jaime Bergman, in particular, does an excellent Pam Anderson riff, which means that connoisseurs can enjoy a parody of a self-parody--which certainly stimulates the mind. Sweet and not too bright, BJ engages in a highbrow discussion with Kimberlee that manages to come off as kind of cute:
BJ: Lucky for us, I'm an expert in computers. But normally I use Macintosh.
Kimberlee: Do you know IBM?
BJ: Really?! Me too. Especially after oatmeal.
Really, her delivery was pretty funny. Admittedly, a good part of what we get here is nothing more than dumb dick jokes: "BJ Cummings," tight-ass Mayor Massengill, a monster called the "cocktopuss" ("long and hard and blue veins all down it"), BJ's description of the monster as one that "swallowed a whole shipload of seamen."
But past the nyuk-nyuk level, alert viewers get the occasional hint of a more nimble hand at the tiller. A recent episode featuring the "Chi-Negro Accords" (between China and, um, Africa) boasted Chinese leaders named "You Ho" and "So Ho," and an African queen named Latifah, but also a "King Vidor." How many Stern-heads got that one? The King's son ("I am a prince, formerly known as an artist") wishes to sample American culture by moshing and seeing "the network of our people...UPN." On another episode, Corey Feldman (one of a host of has-beens who can probably retire on residuals if the boomlet on shows like this and VIP continues) pulls in Chip's techno-polka band with a barb at the music biz: "I'm an executive from a record company! Any of you kids got a drug problem? Good for you!"
So good-humored is the show's vibe that it can even get off the occasional Nazi joke without offending. "The trains must run on time!" Chip barks, worried that municipal transportation will be disrupted by terrorist action. "If you want to feel really bad," he commiserates with Notch's military buddy, "lose a war." Later, that buddy will tie up the crew while trying to assassinate the king, throwing the ever-trusting Notch for a loop: "You never acted crazy like this back in Nam...not even the night you were bowling with real human skulls."
The most successful original program in the history of FX (not, admittedly, an enormous achievement at this point), Son of the Beach has yet to attain the glorious stupidity (or stoopidity, as we used to say of the Ramones) that it could. But its adroit mix of T&A for the faithful with straight-faced puns for the faithless creates an unassuming blurt that is sure to be funnier than a good half of the major networks' fall schedule. Which is rather funny in and of itself.