Everybody is calling the premiere of The Anna Nicole Show a train wreck. My response is, what's wrong with that?
This series is inevitably going to be about various collisions and breakdowns, but it's much more complex than simply "dopey fallen sex symbol self-destructs on television." The conflicts played out here will involve fantasy vs. reality, perception vs. truth, malicious lies vs. harmless illusions. Anna Nicole Smith is a fantasy figure, a mythological icon, but this series has cannily chosen to focus on how such a larger-than-life individual fits into the real world. Of course there will be train wrecks. To that I say, "All aboard!"
The show opens with Anna Nicole assertively addressing the camera to dispel three common misconceptions about her: people think she's rich, people think she's a gold-digger, and people think she's fat. She refutes the first two labels, but as for the third, she only concedes, "Well, maybe I'm a little big-boned." In effect, she's admitting that she is heavy these days, but refusing to accept that her size is therefore a problem. She is throwing down the first of many challenges she will be imposing on viewers' assumptions about her, as well as our notions about celebrity and beauty.
From there we cut to the opening title sequence, a cartoon animation of an Anna Nicole caricature in the style of the classic sitcom intros from Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie. Like any good sitcom opening, it has to serve up the necessary exposition about the characters in quick-capsule format, set to a catchy theme song. The animation succeeds brilliantly at telling the entire story of Anna Nicole's mythology, from her early Texas careers at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken and exotic dancing, to modeling for Playboy and Guess?, to marrying J. Howard Marshall and becoming a grieving widow, and bouncing back as a larger-than-life goddess. All in about 30 seconds. This animation is so beautiful that the first time I saw it I was left apoplectic, weeping tears of delight. It's like watching the contents of my subconscious brought to life.
The Anna Nicole caricature is very plus-sized, not "idealized" as a slender figure, and she is wearing a red dress similar to the legendary gown she wore to the 1994 Oscars, which has become a key part of her iconography. The theme song performed by a female chorus is not very lyrically rich, but it's supercharged with infectious energy. The animated titles splendidly capture the essence of Anna Nicole's personality -- after all, she's very much like a living cartoon to begin with. Her small black poodle Sugar Pie is also included in the animation, but the rest of the supporting cast -- "son Daniel," "lawyer Howard," and "assistant Kim" -- is introduced only in still portrait shots. It would have been inappropriate to render these three people as cartoon characters, since their role is to ground the fanciful Anna Nicole in reality.
The show proper begins with Anna Nicole speaking to an unseen and unheard interviewer about why she needed to find a new house. From what little exposure I've had to "reality television," this is apparently a common device for providing connective narration to the candid footage, and allows for interior monologues from the various individual participants (which is of special dramatic necessity on those shows where everybody hates each other). The technique works well enough on The Anna Nicole Show, providing the thoughts of our four principal stars throughout the program, even if I don't really care for the Real World/Survivor vibe that the format connotes. Then again, anything to keep obnoxious interviewers or narrators out of the proceedings is all right by me.
Wearing no makeup and in a fairly composed and expressive state of mind, Anna Nicole explains that she had to get out of her old house because it was "like a hellhole for me." This remark makes us chuckle because it's spoken over a shot of that house, to all appearances a luxury home in a swank L.A. suburb, which only a spoiled princess could describe as a "hellhole." But then attorney Howard explains that Anna Nicole recently had trouble with a stalker at the house, and she was concerned for her and Daniel's safety. Now her derision of her former home seems much more reasonable, and we're able to understand the warning sign printed on her baby-doll top: "NO STALKING ANY TIME." We're seeing the collision of Anna Nicole's fantasy lifestyle with the often unpleasant truths of the real world, which is the element that most promises to make The Anna Nicole Show more than just some inane freakshow.
We join Anna Nicole at the office of real estate broker Reza Arshadi. She's dressed in tight jeans and a tiny pink top with her breasts threatening to pop out, and her behavior in this sequence is quite extraordinarily spacey. Anna Nicole has admitted that even she thought she looked stoned when she saw the tape, but she swears she has not been on any drugs or medication lately, for whatever that's worth. In her first of many snack breaks of the episode, she enjoys some exotic Turkish candy offered from Reza, and then we're off to look at houses.
Househunting makes an unbelievably apt thematic metaphor for the inaugural episode of The Anna Nicole Show. The process of moving to a different home is all about closing one chapter in our lives and starting a new one. As Anna Nicole says, "It's time to move, it's time to get on with my life, it's time to just start over." You could say her new TV show represents a fresh start just as much as her new home does. She's trying to break out of the doldrums that her long legal battle has left her career in, and do something bold and different.
Of course, househunting is always a matter of trial and error. Reza first takes Anna Nicole and her entourage to a Spanish-style "cabana/cabona/cubano" that just doesn't click with his client. Anna Nicole is much more taken with the second house, which she attacks like a 200-pound Goldilocks: she raids the fridge, she tries out the beds, she sits fully clothed in the bathtub. Most house-shoppers will respectfully avoid touching the owner's personal things, and judge how they might like living there by relying on imagination. But not Anna Nicole. Accustomed to having her fantasy life manifested in concrete terms, she thinks nothing of trying out the place hands-on. Presumably she knows the beds belong to the owner, but that doesn't keep her from grabbing onto the headboard and seeing how well it rides. You'd imagine Anna Nicole would accept nothing less than her own mattress and box springs, but she needs to test out the idea of having sex in this bedroom, if not on this bed specifically. It may seem silly and inconsiderate to us, but from Anna Nicole's perspective it's as reasonable as checking out the insulation or the plumbing.
And in a broader symbolic sense, Anna Nicole is also invading our own homes and testing us out. She charges into our living rooms and unabashedly makes herself comfortable, giving her and us the opportunity to judge how good a fit her new Sunday night home on E! is. A lot of people aren't going to want to let this crazy woman in their house ever again, but others like myself will be inviting her back every week.
Completely delighted with everything, Anna Nicole declares that this is her house. But Howard and Reza discover a problem: she can't afford it. Anna Nicole is devastated, and starts whimpering like a little girl whose mommy won't buy her the toy she wants. We can't feel much sympathy for someone being denied a megabuck mansion, but this scene is important because it illustrates the fact that Anna Nicole Smith does not yet have the millions of dollars everyone thinks she does. She has some money, but she can't just buy everything she wants. She has her budgetary restrictions like any normal person, be they on a whole different scale.
The search for a new home forces you to confront how and where you fit in with the rest of the world, especially when you're looking to buy an existing home instead of building one. You have to deal with your need to contort this external reality into the personal world you want to live in, and this generally demands compromises. Anna Nicole doesn't like to compromise anything. Reza shows her a third house, but it's too small and inadequate, and she's having no part of it. She announces that she's done looking at houses for the day, and conspiratorially tells the camera what she plans to do instead:
"I have to go home and masturbate. That's the real fun. I didn't get to masturbate this morning and I'm dying to, so I gotta go home."
I believe this sheds some light on Anna Nicole's eccentric behavior while househunting with Reza. Whenever you see her acting more lucid and mentally together, it may be because she had the proper opportunity to enjoy her personal time that morning.
In the next segment of the episode, we follow Anna Nicole later that same day as she attends a 20th anniversary party for her former employer, Guess? Jeans. That requires her to get dolled up for a night on the town, and so we get to witness of the grubby, everyday-life Anna Nicole into her glamorous fantasy persona. She changes into a gorgeous evening gown, a strapless, midnight blue number covered in sparkling sequins. While her staff fixes up her hair and make-up, she pouts and moans theatrically about the ordeal: "See what I have to go through to look good for everybody?" This is one instance where we can be sure Anna Nicole's koo-koo immaturity just a put-on, because there's no doubt she loves being prettied up.
Up to this point in the episode, Anna Nicole has been looking pretty sloppy. I can imagine most viewers reacting with horror, "Eww, look at how she's let herself go! She's fat and gross! What a pity!" But her famous beauty has not faded away -- it's actually a separate persona that she can put on or take off as she chooses, even to this day.
When the make-up is finished, we cut to Anna Nicole sitting at her vanity, transformed into a ravishing beauty. She decides to start flirting with the camera, and she turns on the full force of her innate powers to project an image of fantastic sexiness. All the comedy of the episode stops, Anna Nicole's goofiness goes away, everything gets quiet, and now we're looking at someone else. It is a Jekyll and Hyde situation all the way. She just nods her head knowingly, seducing us with her piercing green eyes, and she mutters under her breath, "Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. You know what I'm talking about, don't you, boy? Bring it on. I dare you. You and me." And it is jaw-dropping. It's enough to make any man melt. This is so brilliant because the episode has shown us Anna Nicole looking slovenly in her daily life, giving us the impression that her beauty queen days are long gone, but then the truth comes like a sucker punch to the gut -- POW! She's still got it, in spades. I don't understand how anyone who sees this interlude can claim that she is no longer physically attractive... when she wants to be.
After that brief, spellbinding moment, we get to see Anna Nicole go back to acting silly again, but now while looking beautiful. Appraising herself in the mirror, she says, "Fat ass! I have a big butt in this dress!" Anna Nicole has to confront reality again while watching the horrors of the evening news. "Why is there even the news?" she wonders. "Why do they have it? It just totally depresses people." During the limo ride to the Guess? party, Howard gives Anna Nicole a lesson in Middle East politics and suicide bombings in Israel. Bewildered, Anna Nicole decides the best position for her to take on foreign relations is to keep quiet.
Arriving on the red carpet at the party, Anna Nicole does her thing for the paparazzi, whom she later expresses her love for. She has a symbiotic relationship with the camera that is completely evident throughout this show. We see her warmly greeted by her former mentor and the man who named her "Anna Nicole," Guess? honcho Paul Marciano. He seems genuinely touched that the black sheep of the Guess family has come home, but we can be fairly certain it's just an act. Word is that everyone at Guess? despises Anna Nicole, especially since she has remained in the spotlight all these years while the Guess? label has lost its hip cachet in the fashion world. The Guess? party is populated with models in bizarre, painted-on, Star Trek style outfits, and weird trapeze artists putting on a show. The alien circus atmosphere of the party helps put Anna Nicole in proper context: sure, she seems weird on her own, but when you consider the crazy kind of world people consider normal in the trendy L.A. scene, maybe her off-kilter personality begins to make more sense.
Returning to her hotel suite after the party, Anna Nicole plays hide-and-seek with Sugar Pie and gets stuck under a table, Winnie-the-Pooh style, because her big butt has no chance of squeezing between the legs. It's an adorable moment.
She also gets a phone call from Daniel, who is alone back home. It's the only time we get to see her interact with her son on this episode. Although she has a very sweet and caring conversation with him, it leaves something of an impression of the absentee mom who goes off jet-setting without her son. I know Daniel hates the cameras, but I hope we'll get to see more of him. I believe there's a Homer Simpson/Lisa Simpson relationship there, with the wise and responsible child helping to center the simple-minded but loving parent. It would greatly deepen the public image of Anna Nicole Smith if we get to see her being a good mother.
For the final segment of the show, Anna Nicole resumes househunting the next morning. Howard has arranged a new broker, Janice Cohen, and Anna Nicole seems much more subdued this morning. She's made up fairly nicely and wearing a more fashionable and conservative outfit, although it is unbuttoned from the midriff down to expose her belly button. Oh, my.
Anna Nicole dozes off and gets impatient on the long drive to the house Janice is showing, but it turns out to be worth the trouble. She immediately loves the house, and once it passes the bathtub test, she's sold. Luckily, she can afford this dream house. Anna Nicole does a little Marilyn Monroe dance in celebration.
"It makes me feel really good to be surrounded by such beauty," Anna Nicole says of her new home. "Our future absolutely seems brighter." A complete delight, the first episode of The Anna Nicole Show closes with a happy sitcom ending.
My only complaint is that some of the most intriguing scenes that E! has run in the promos did not make the final edit. In particular, I wanted to see the part where Anna Nicole is wearing her Guess? party dress when she issues this declaration:
"I can't eat over $600 worth of food!"
I have been dying to find out what the full context of that enigmatic statement might be, but they didn't show it! Arrgh! How can E! taunt us with these captivating non sequiturs if they're not going to follow through in the shows? Plus, there was an ad with Howard telling Anna Nicole to calm down, and she looked like she was going to kick his ass. Another one showed her putting him in a headlock. But we never get to see any of their fighting on the actual show. Both Howard and Kim came across simply as Anna Nicole's obedient supplicants, and I look forward to seeing more of their personalities in future episodes.
Actually, the most important member of the supporting cast in the premiere is neither Daniel nor Howard nor Kim nor Sugar Pie -- it is Anna Nicole's butt. Lord have mercy, the woman has the most perfectly developed feminine posterior of all time, and the camera lets us get very well acquainted with it. She possesses the Platonian ideal of the fine ass: big, wide, bouncy, and geometrically spherical. Forget about J. Lo, folks. Anna Nicole has the ulti-butt.
Yes, I do love this show. I never knew a train wreck could be so much fun.