Recently Kevin over at LAObserved discovered why LA based New York Times writer Charlie LeDuff's by-line had vanished for some time. I had noticed that myself, but - as usual - never got around to asking what had happened to him. This even though, after he had considerable problems learning the territory, Charlie actually - finally - became a first rate commentator of all things Los Angeles and I began to look forward to reading him.
Surprisingly, Kevin reported that Charlie is now the star of his very own reality show. I mean, can it be any more clear that reality shows 'have jumped the shark' when they are now using... journalists.
But since the show is a first hand - in every way - look at the various off-beat sub-cultures in the US - it seemed a perfect fit for good old Charlie. Alas, the first review that I came across was pretty brutal - and - it was from the New York Times! I can only imagine what the review might have been like if poor Charlie wrote for the... New York Post.
Every once in a while, maybe three times an episode (to judge from the first two), "Only in America" produces a moment that stays with you.
Dan, a member of an Oakland biker club called the East Bay Rats, describes the long-ago humiliation of being gang-stomped while his friends looked on and did nothing. It can't happen to him again, he says, now that he's a Rat. (Of course, you have to endure a group beating from fellow Rats when you join the club, and members regularly pound each other in a makeshift ring while friends cheer them on during informal fight nights, but people are complicated.)
Dan chokes up and walks away from Charlie LeDuff, the show's host, who stands there with his chin in his palm. The camera lingers, allowing another Rat to wander into the frame and exchange a sympathetic look with Mr. LeDuff behind Dan's back. Everything the episode wants to address, especially the urge to ratify community with intramural violence, hangs unspoken in the air between them.
America's enduring weirdness beckons to an enterprising reporter seeking resonant subcultures. In addition to bikers and gay rodeo riders, Mr. LeDuff will visit arena football players, fashion models, battle re-enactors and others. Find a scene, work your way into it, hang out, point the camera at people with something to say and let them say it. You can't go wrong.
Actually, you can. Mr. LeDuff too often gets between us and the people he wants to introduce to us. He has a sense of humor, and one can appreciate the gameness of a reporter who will dress up in drag to fall off a steer, but there's just too much of him, and he can't seem to get over himself. His overstyled voiceovers do little to frame the action in an explanatory bigger picture, and he takes up too much screen time. He talks too much, and too often he's talking about himself. "These guys respect me, like, I'm a gamer," he says of the East Bay Rats. Even if true, the line makes you wince.One also grows tired of Mr. LeDuff's self-regarding need to mark his territory. Depending on whom he's hanging out with, he will start droppin' his g's and otherwise broadening his variable regular-guy diction. When he offers an analytical insight - for instance, when women fight, "it's kinda hot" - he'll put some extra stoner drag in his voice to assure us he's no egghead. Hanging with the head Rat at ringside, Mr. LeDuff is moved to remark, "You're like the Svengali of a lost generation, man."
Each episode has a sustained gimmick. Charlie's going to fight a giant Rat named Big Mike. Charlie's not going to let any gay wannabe cowboy outride him. Will he walk out or be carried out? It's forced and lame, and it suggests that "Only in America" doesn't trust regular weird American folks to hold our interest.
Ouch! And then reviewer (Carlo Rotella) even declined to state the day, time - or even what cable network the show is going to be on. Hmmm... sounds almost personal.
I guess the days of participatory/gonzo journalism so personified Tom Wolfe, George Plimpton and Hunter Thompson went up in flames with Hunter's corpse.
Too bad I can't afford cable to see if I agree in any with the review or not. Anyone over at Discovery want to send me a review copy? And Charlie - if you ever need a dopamine rush after reading that review -- feel free to call me. I'll even pretend to let you win. There's only so much reality a man can take.