Like the proverbial death, taxes, or the poor, Entertainment Tonight will apparently always be with us. This hardy perennial has survived since 1981, the glory days down at the Dallas ranch, and it still hovers around the lower reaches of the Nielsens' Top 10 syndicated programs, with a stable audience of about six million each night. And yet to the uninitiated--or, for that matter, to the initiated--its longevity feels inexplicable: Like, say, The Family Circus, it seems to thrive on innocuousness.
Or does ET (6:30 p.m. weeknights on KARE-TV, Channel 11) harbor deeper secrets? Is it an installment on some unspeakable karmic debt? A divine punishment in human shape? Did John Tesh catch half of Hollywood with its pants down? Much as it might invigorate the viewing experience to think so, a few weeks of concentrated observation reveals something even more disturbing: ET's hidden message is that it has no hidden message. Its most basic truth is that what you see really is what you get. Glazing you over with a slumberous combination of sugar, spice, and babies, the show has maintained its grip on our pop unconscious by remaining resolutely Panglossian: The star village, we learn here, is the best of all possible worlds. Politely holding its nose, ET cuts itself a sweet detour around the sweaty dreamscape that powers celebrity culture.
When Van Gordon Sauter first brought the concept to CBS (then the prestige network) in 1980, seasoned executives responded with horror, recognizing it as the vanguard of a revolution: fluffily insubstantial programming that treated current celebrity happenings as serious news. Nowadays, amid a wash of print and televised tabloids, ET's stars-are-good ideology has amassed a perverse integrity. The show courts no lawsuits, opens no closet doors. In its world, stars, well, star: They open new movies, release hot albums, get hot on TV shows--all toward the cause of helping them to open new movies, release hot albums, etc. Even when they encounter problems, most commonly drug addiction (a result of "the pressures of stardom" or "life in the fast lane"), stars overcome them through hard work and faith. Yes, ET admits, difficulties arise--doubts, failed movies, career setbacks--but as soon as a new project looms, ET hops to it, ready to play again with a touchingly puppylike faith. Whenever Robert Downey Jr. next cleans up his act, ET is sure to be in the front row, leading cheers.
In fact, the most appealing aspect of ET's star fixation is its universality. Stars are so good, so wise, that any star can become an authority figure. Where else could Diff'rent Strokes repeat offender Todd Bridges and passé teenybopper Deborah (née Debbie) Gibson count as experts? (This theme is amplified by the nightly birthday greetings accorded everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Jack Paar; in this world, once a star, always a star.) Similarly, editors from associated journals of opinion like Teen People and In Style weigh in on their specialties, from boy bands to James van der Beek's prospects of leveraging Varsity Blues into a movie career. The result feels alarmingly refreshing: By taking publicity at face value, ET offers its viewers the seduction of believing all those childhood illusions they know damn well they've outgrown.
The hosts personify these principles. They're perfect surfaces, the principle of telegenics made flesh. You might have thought ET would spring a leak when the estimable John Tesh, villainous New Age hack and Humbert Humbert of U.S. gymnastics, took his Ken-doll good looks and jumped overboard in 1996. But somehow this program has stockpiled legions of cybernetic hosts ready to plug in and read the "news." Tesh 1.0 has been supplanted by newer model Bob Goen, who looks--if this is possible--even more like a mannequin than his predecessor. Longtime cohost Mary Hart, a fixture since 1982 (!), continues a career remarkable only for its inexplicable lack of presence. When she leaves the room, how does anyone know? (Besides those chosen few who suffer epileptic fits at the sound of her voice.)
Supported by equally facile substitute anchors like Julie Moran, and broadened, I guess, by reports from magazine journalists with names like (I am not making this up) Honor Brodie, the ET crew remains astoundingly perky; nothing dents their esprit. They're not exactly impartial, but rather so one-dimensionally partial that their angle on every story boils down to the following proposition: Stars are interesting! Because they're stars! With an emotional range spanning from cheerful enthusiasm to even more cheerful enthusiasm, Goen and Co. would be perfectly at home delivering factoids to an audience of cyborgs. The entertainment will be televised.
When doling out its meat-and-potatoes celebrity gossip, ET follows the same rules, fawning so determinedly it makes People look like The Nation. The heavily promoted "feature story," touted for a good five minutes out of every half-hour, stretches the journalistic concept of "story" to its breaking point. A recent discussion of teen sex goddess and alleged breast-implant beneficiary Britney Spears ("is she too sexy?") uncovered this evidence: Newsweek posed the mammary question; Britney wore a sexy outfit on the cover of Rolling Stone; she was raised in a small town in Louisiana and has a hit single; and Britney is now trying to cut back on her appearances. Conclude from all of that what you will, and try to remember what the story was supposed to be about in the first place.
Or listen to this probing interview with Cher, who also has, surprise, a hit single and a hot album. Cher on Madonna: "We have somewhat the same ideas. She's really strong. I'm really strong. We're both unique." Given that foundational shallowness, every installment can easily cover all the (un)necessary territory: established star's comeback, newcomer's breakthrough, movie premiere. Then there's the sex quotient, which can vary wildly, from Playboy's Playmate of the Year in a bubble bath to Roma Downey in sleeveless shirts with cardigans--or even the occasional hot guy or three. But here, too, every story comes with an equal dose of cheer. "Roma Downey has a bit of a devilish side!" Hef gave the Playmate of the Year a motorcycle! And she did a Little Red Riding Hood video wearing only a cape!
At its core, then, ET is both aseptic and amoral. Stars star, and that's good. You could be a faithful postmodernist and appreciate the show's cultivation of surface qua surface; you could surf its triviality, groove on its mouthing of PR and teen discourse and the way its ultimate term of approbation is "hot." Watching it consistently feels as empty and overstimulating as reading the collected works of Mark Leyner, and without the irony. Do whatever you want with it, ET won't get in your way. The only thing you can't do is ask for more from the show, because you won't get it. ET admits no secrets, tells no truths.
And ultimately, theorizing ways to like this show is the worst kind of intellectual perversity. I can't bring myself to enjoy ET, and I'm not sure anyone else can, either. Do its anchors ever think to themselves, "Boy, that was a good show tonight"? Do viewers eagerly await 7:30 to see where Heather Locklear will be going after Melrose Place? I doubt it.
ET simply appears, unbidden, what my wife (who tunes it in with alarming frequency) calls "an enema for your brain." This show is peerless at what it does, yet at base its achievement is faintly horrifying: The most popular and longest-running commercial in our history, it pioneered the bleeding of info- into -tainment so seamlessly that no one can tell the difference anymore. Protesting it feels pointless but somehow necessary. Does celebrity culture hold us so much in its spell?
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