Escape from Fantasy Island

Taking the prima out of Donna: '90210' vet Tori Spelling
Dainelle Levitt/VH1

So NoTORIous
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In a recent interview about his controversy-baiting wife Ayelet Waldman, novelist Michael Chabon condemned "the slagosphere"--that merciless virtual coliseum in which anyone with a DSL can publicly eviscerate any celebrity, political figure or, heck, private citizen who happens to offend. These scathing (and admittedly, often hilarious) observations used to be confined to telephone wires and vicious circles. Once aired, they evaporated, never to be archived or Googled or Waybacked for the ages. But the internet has created a nation of little Hearsts, empowered by iBooks and irony, and free of the editor's yoke. (Don't care for Paris Hilton? Just compose a brief all-caps diatribe about what a WHOR she is! You'll likely reach a wider audience than Harriet Beecher Stowe.)

Think this intense public scrutiny is tough on a Pulitzer-packin' pimp like Chabon or an acidic pundit like Waldman? Imagine what it's like to be poor Tori Spelling. Miss Tori has the dubious distinction of having been a major slag-magnet when the slagosphere was but a twinkle in Harry Knowles's eye. During her days on Beverly Hills, 90210 (or as we in the 'sphere call it, "BH-90"), Tori was mocked in the media for not only being the beneficiary of massive nepotism (she's Aaron Spelling's daughter, duh), but earnestly denying it. She claimed to have auditioned "anonymously" for the role of Donna Martin. Yeah, and Tatum O'Neal was an unknown.

But the flack Tori took for this offense was minimal compared to the public uproar over something she couldn't control--her looks. Tori Spelling dared to have a distinctive mug (for Hollywood), hair that didn't flutter like Jennie Garth's, and a sizeable head years before lollipop-chic was cool. Her personality didn't matter. Because she was unfathomably rich, because Daddy ran the show, because all the plastic surgery in the world couldn't adequately refine her strong features, Tori was flamed to a crisp by tabloids and fans.

But now, with the help of VH1, Tori is turning the blowtorch on herself and emerging, phoenix-like, with the still-beating heart of America in her lacquered talons. I give you: So NoTORIous.

You wanna talk interactivity? Tori's new TV show is bolder than the most bombastic blog, wilier than a Wikipedia coup. Tori is letting us know--in a big way--that she has heard every gripe and grievance about her and that she agrees. I suppose she could have accomplished the same thing with a well-worded online missive in the tradition of Kevin Smith (who is known for his barbed responses to haters), but a "celebreality" sitcom is much more appropriate for a Bel Air blonde like Tor. And believe it or not, Spelling Productions didn't bankroll this little venture (though it could be argued that every breath Tori takes is technically a Spelling Production.)

So NoTORIous follows in the footsteps of Fat Actress (and in a lesser sense, Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback) in that, while technically a work of fiction, it's rooted in the public's perception/expectations of its star. Tori plays herself and even totes around her real-life pet pug Mimi LaRue, but her friends and conquests are actors and their misadventures are scripted.

For all the self-referential screwball antics, the humor is surprisingly dry. Shots are taken at Scientology (disguised as a cult called "Wholeness" in episode 2), homophobia in Hollywood, and the skin-and-bones brigade. But Tori's willingness to poke fun at her own mini-mythology is the main attraction here. There's a reason the show is being billed as "a new series from an easy target"--Tori has her pick of media accusations to refute (or bolster). We see her on dates with guys who are clearly using her to get acting roles. We see people slamming her looks (her breast implants, her "bug eyes," etc.) with heartbreaking matter-of-factness. Throughout, she satirically paints herself as an insecure woman-child who stars in "F movies" and can't even get a pass to park on the studio lot.

But the insults endured during her day-to-day existence are nothing compared to the damage depicted during numerous "childhood flashbacks." Loni Anderson plays Tori's mother, who outfits her child in Lilliputian hooker gear, trucks in snow for Christmas, and blithely neglects Tori's emotional needs. Daddy Spelling exists as a disembodied voice (a sly tribute to Charlie's Angels) and excels at absentee parenting. Rumor has it Tori's real-life family is less than pleased about the way their fictional counterparts have been depicted thus far, but one hopes the punch lines won't be softened as a result. (Anderson should be billed as a visual effect; facelifts have rendered her eerily ageless.)

Even with the self-deprecating jokes coming at a brisk clip, there's still plenty of territory for Tori to mine, should the series continue. So NoTORIous hasn't even addressed Tori's most recent PR snafu: getting hitched in a million-dollar extravaganza in 2004, then divorcing the guy a year later to hook up with a guy she met while doing a Lifetime movie. The episodes practically write themselves! And yet, you can't help but love this lost girl, because she doesn't appear to harbor a single delusion about herself. As she declares to a spurned suitor: "I'm Tori Spelling. I don't need to be relevant!"

On behalf of the slagosphere: We surrender, Tori.

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