If I need to, I can date my periods of depression by the corresponding enthusiasms for terrible TV shows. Enthusiasms is maybe the wrong word: let’s say commitment to.
Now, at the best of times, I can be sucked into watching almost any show—give me a marathon and I’m yours for the next twenty episodes, and I genuinely mourn the passing of Most Eligible Dallas—but when I think of the other times, the bad times, my devotion had a different quality: resigned, enervated, yet obsessive. It was sort of coaxing a tepid crush out of boredom; with a little care and a lot of time, you can create something that approximates a genuine interest.
And I was willing to put in the time. There was my relatively respectable Upstairs Downstairs fixation after I moved into my parents’ house after college, when I’d spend my days crouching by the mail slot, waiting for the red Netflix envelopes to arrive with my fix. Even now, I see those weeks in 1970s BBC yellow. Less defensible was the obsession with the Australian soap McLeod’s Daughters, which could only be watched (a) during the day and (b) on Lifetime. This one crept up on me. Did I enter a McLeod’s Daughters contest to try to win a trip to the outback? Maybe. Let’s just say that when the booby prize, a faux-silver cowboy-boot key chain, arrived in the mail, it felt like a wake-up call.
But by any measure, the nadir came in the summer of 2005. I know the date because it was the one and only season of Wayne Newton’s The Entertainer, which aired on E!. Wayne Newton’s The Entertainer was part of the spate of copycat programs that followed the early success of American Idol, and the talent-show premise was similar. Ah, but here was the twist: The Entertainer was not restricted to singers—it sought to give exposure to all kinds of Vegas-style razzle-dazzle. As such The Entertainer was composed not merely of singers, but of ventriloquists, magicians—sorry, “illusionists”—and comedians, too, all vying for the grand prize: opening for “Mr. Vegas” himself. (Apparently Wayne Newton is called that, though I’m not sure by whom.)
In the grand tradition of such programs, the contestants—each of whom was given a nickname like The Showstopper, The Sexy Diva, The Magic Man, or The Ice Queen—also lived in close proximity to one another. There was some low-grade flirtation between an aspiring singer (The Country Girl) and The Joker, a prop-comic. One guy, I think he did impressions, halfheartedly tried to mess with people’s heads. There was always some kind of challenge: putting on a lounge act, throwing together a wedding, working as a team to mount a full-scale show. (I distinctly remember a manic and disorganized rendition of “Celebration” from the finale of that one.) Wayne Newton—looking like a walnut-stained baby-doll in a Roy Orbison wig—presided over everything. He’d often impart wisdom—“the lounge show is the soul of Las Vegas”—and when someone was on the chopping block, he’d imperiously demand, “Entertain me!” At which point the contestant had a chance to win a reprieve, as from an arbitrary monarch.
The show was premised on Wayne Newton’s status as a showbiz legend; by dint of contractual obligation, madness, or brainwashing, all the contestants seemed to subscribe to the view that Newton was an unquestionable luminary. Their awe when they saw his house—Casa de Shenandoah, with its “seven-hundred-year-old piano”—was matched only by their enthusiasm for the macabre rendition of “Danke Schoen” he croaked out in episode three.
One arc concerned the two-episode rise and fall of a human beatbox (nom de guerre: The Wild One) who was initially perceived as the one to watch. But then he had some kind of vague existential crisis, swigged cheap vodka from a plastic handle, and let his team down in the wedding challenge. Wayne Newton’s wrath in this case was swift and terrible to behold. “Mr. Newton,” began the Wild One. “I respect you more than any man I have ever met—”
“That’s enough!” thundered Newton. “You are not the Entertainer!”
In the end, The Showstopper won. I see he has a MySpace and is singing on cruise ships now.
But that’s not the point. I didn’t care who won. The show drew me in partly through nostalgia—in this case, for the old Vegas, the one now subsumed by Celine and her troupes of sinister dancers. And as with any fourth-rate reality program, the cravenness of it was of course a draw. Most of all, perhaps, I needed the painless dose of responsibility. If American Idol made people feel involved in a great enterprise, I liked the sense that I was the only person in the world bothering to tune in to The Entertainer. It felt like an obligation, a trust, even. And maybe I wasn’t so wrong to feel burdened; Wayne Newton has since filed for bankruptcy, and Casa de Shenandoah is currently on the market.