Culture And Criticism

What The Disastrous 'H8R' Teaches About Popular Redemption Stories

Jake Pavelka tries to convince his "hater," Danielle, that he's a great guy. i i

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Jake Pavelka tries to convince his "hater," Danielle, that he's a great guy.

Scott Alan Humbert/The CW
Jake Pavelka tries to convince his "hater," Danielle, that he's a great guy.

Jake Pavelka tries to convince his "hater," Danielle, that he's a great guy.

Scott Alan Humbert/The CW

If you squint, you can see what the people who invented H8R, the show now tanking magnificently in the ratings, were thinking. But only if you squint.

H8R, hosted by the unctuous Mario Lopez, takes a celebrity and a civilian who "hates" that celebrity and brings them together so that the civilian can learn that the celebrity is actually great. The first episode, for instance, introduced Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of Jersey Shore to a guy who considered her a dumb, cheaply dressed drunk so that he could learn that celebrities are people too. The fundamental offensiveness of the premise and its execution — as well as the fact that the network tried to tie this horror show to the burgeoning anti-bullying movement like a rotting ham tied to the bumper of a car — was very well explained by Dan Fienberg over at HitFix in one of the best and most thoughtful takedowns of a television show I've read this year.

Whenever people insist that it's impossible to go broke overestimating the interest of the hoi polloi in what is cheap and stupid, you know that they are speaking of the imaginary hoi polloi living inside their heads who keep the world from bending to their particular tastes. Because, in fact, the hoi polloi are actually quite picky about what they'll watch, even as silly trash. Marketing to them isn't as easy as "Snooki plus cornball editing equals smash hit."

Yes, the uplifting piece of maudlin television has a long and profitable history, from Queen For A Day all the way up to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The show about a train-wreck celebrity has a long and profitable history, too. And heaven knows we love it when someone who's been thoroughly torn down comes back. There's no reason why, in theory, you couldn't make a show about the redemption of Snooki and have people watch it.

Here's the problem: redemption is linear. You can make cynical money off both your rise and your fall, but not at the same time. Mike Fleiss, who tried to sell the redemption of Bachelor Jake Pavelka in another episode of H8R, had just — as in, within a week or two — finished selling the hating of Jake Pavelka on his other show, Bachelor Pad. That won't work.

It's the same thing with Snooki. If she wants to come back a year after Jersey Shore ends and be portrayed as a nice girl on Dancing With The Stars, that can probably happen. But she's still selling the dumb drunk over on MTV, is the problem.

This is our ruthless deal with famous people, particularly the ones who are famous without really making anything. They're not there because of anything they do. They're there to play a role and fill a spot in a narrative and it's the narrative that makes money. As long as they're still appearing in one story, we will not cast them in another. You can feel Charlie Sheen doing this right now. He wants to go back to making money as a bad-boy TV actor, so he's stopped trying to make money from being a volcano of insanity. One thing at a time.

You can sell the story called My Rise And Fall. Or just My Rise. Or My Rise, Fall, And Rise Again. You can add chapters and keep selling it again and again — that's Sheen, or David Hasselhoff, or anybody who's been on Celebrity Rehab. What you can't do is keep selling I'm A Mess and open up a stand on the side to sell But Not Really, Actually I'm Very Nice.

It's remarkable that Mike Fleiss and Snooki, given how much money they already make for doing so little, could get greedy. But they did, and they got their answer in the regrettable little game they're playing from the people they expected might be interested in it: We're still watching you fall down. Why would we help you up?

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