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American Asshole

I’m tempted to say that the creators of The It Factor (Bravo, Mondays, 9:30 p.m.) should be shot, but perhaps that would be a little harsh. How about just never allowing them near a television studio again? After all, there are plenty of other jobs in the world, many of them quite useful. Maybe they could drive cabs, program computers, help keep the parks tidy.

The It Factor, which is beginning its second season, is a reality show about a group of actors searching for work in Los Angeles. (The first series was set in New York.) At the start of each episode, we are informed that there are more than 200,000 actors in L.A., of whom only 1 percent could be called stars. That leaves the show‘s creators with a talent pool of something like 198,000 people to choose from. Amazingly, they’ve come up with nine hopefuls so uninteresting that the show amounts to a massive insult to all the serious actors in L.A. still waiting for their break.

I should probably refrain from reading the decline of Western civilization into a forgettable series on Bravo, but I do read into it the decline of the responsible adult, which may amount to the same thing. People in positions of authority used to feel that it was incumbent upon them to teach, inform and provide a coherent picture of the world. If they knew something about life, if they‘d been fortunate enough to receive a good education, they were supposed to share the knowledge and pass it on. Unfortunately, their successors no longer believe in anything so top-down. The thing now is to pretend you’re as muddled as everyone else, and the result is aimless, idiotic programs like this one.

“My job as an actor is looking for work as an actor,” says one of the contestants, and the “process” is what The It Factor focuses on. Which means, essentially, that we spend a lot of time watching people waiting for the phone to ring, driving to auditions, and sitting around with their fellow thespians as they try out for, say, a Dutch Boy paint commercial, or a spot on Cedric the Entertainer. (The words “did not get the part” appear with predictable frequency on the bottom of the screen.)

All that rejection makes for a tough life, but you can‘t help noticing that these people live pretty well. They have nice cars to drive, and, in many cases, spacious, comfortable, well-furnished apartments to live in, complete with fashionable dogs and the latest home-office equipment. Where does the money come from? I thought these young actors were struggling. How come they get to drive SUVs? Why aren’t they working at real jobs in between attending auditions? Are their parents supporting them or are they just maxing out their credit cards? I realize that economics is the dismal science, but a little economic analysis couldn‘t be any more dismal than watching this lot flail around in Hollywood.

To the extent that The It Factor does have a grown-up perspective, it’s provided by Mali Finn, the middle-aged casting director (The Matrix) responsible for choosing the nine actors for the show. “I want to nurture the talent, the creme de la creme,” she says at one point, claiming to be on the prowl for people “who are so special that they are going to be in demand for the next six months” -- apparently an eternity in show biz -- and “who are going to have a shot at this stage in their career.” Not people she thinks ought to have a shot, mind you, just people who passively “are going” to have one. Even when she makes a judgment, her language tells you it‘s not one for which she’s willing to take responsibility. And some of her choices -- I‘m thinking of one actress in particular -- are so obviously untalented that to put them on screen like this amounts to an act of media cruelty with malice aforethought.

Finn sets up a reading to test the actors, and the first line of the script is: “Hey, Rachel, what crawled up your poop chute and died?” So, lucky us, we get to study every nuance of this deathless sentence as one applicant after another tackles it. And what of the actors themselves? Well, in keeping with multicultural orthodoxy, the women are the biggest braggarts and egotists. There’s Maria, a comedian who boasts about her exotic Cuban-Hungarian heritage (“I‘m too beautiful, too talented, too sexy, too fabulous,” she croons into the mirror). Then there’s LisaRaye, who‘s already a star in her own head, if in few others, and Sara, a razor-thin girl who looks like she’d as soon blow up a theater as act in one. (She should get in touch with some Chechens.) The one demure, old-school female is Jennifer, a ditzy ex-model who wears a Peace & Love T-shirt and goes on and on about the fact that she‘s a single mom as if it were a prestigious government appointment. “Are you funny?” an agent asks her. “Hysterical. Unreal,” she answers.

The men, in comparison, are almost pleasantly dopey, though not without delusions themselves. Josh, who could have a shot at being Andy Richter’s body double, wants to star in his own sitcom, which seems much less realistic, but De‘Angelo, a rangy black guy from Ohio, just seems pleased that he’s landed a gig after only nine days in L.A. Still, given the city‘s vast talent pool, why these particular performers have been chosen to star in this series is a mystery. None of them, male or female, ever mentions another actor except when asked who he or she is most often compared to in the looks department. No love for acting as a craft is communicated, and no history is imparted. There’s no reverence for language, writers, movies, theater or even music videos. There is only ME -- my hopes, my dreams, my needs. “I wanna be an actress, and I will do it at my own pace,” says LisaRaye, making it sound like a threat. Take as long as you like, baby.

The only way that a show like The It Factor can work is if the actors are people we care about. And for us to care about them, they have to be special in some way, or at least able to exhibit some soul and a smidgen of original thinking. But David Clair, Lauren Friedland and Nicole Torre, the people responsible for this 13-part exercise in tedium -- and I‘ve only seen the first three episodes -- seem to think that we’re all so careerist in our assumptions that we‘ll automatically identify with anyone trying to “make it.” Thus when LisaRaye gets the call telling her she’s been selected for The It Factor, we‘re supposed to share her joy as she whoops and hollers at the news. But why should we be excited about her life when she shows no interest in anyone else’s?

If I were an actor on a reality show about actors, I hope that I‘d feel a need to justify my presence in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of living rooms by at least trying to say something interesting about the business, and why I was in it, and what I thought the point of the whole thing was. Some of these actors actually have good credits -- Jeremy Renner got some critical raves for his starring role in the indie feature Dahmer, for instance -- but as portrayed here there’s nothing remarkable about him. For all I know, the real-life Jeremy Renner has a passion for the plays of Tennessee Williams and is itching to stun the world with his interpretation of Hamlet. But I suspect that if he‘d mentioned such an ambition to Mali Finn and the rest of the goons in charge, they’d have yawned and said, “Next!”


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