The guilty pleasure is a powerful thing in pop culture.
It's our justification for watching stuff we know feeds our worst cultural instincts. But it's also a safety valve, preventing us from taking any media message too seriously (and we all know how easy it is to overthink the sociological implications of Celebrity Fit Club).
So instead of trying to talk about Hulk Hogan's Celebrity Championship Wrestling Challenge or Celebrity Rehab with a straight face, let's just see how the first episode of each show stacks up as the guiltiest of TV pleasures, with my own championship GP belt going to the series that nails this dubious distinction the best.
Round 1: The concept
The Hulkster's show, which he says was originally conceived as American Idol meets pro wrestling, takes 11 C and D list performers through a wrestling "boot camp" of sorts, splitting the groups into two teams that face off against each other in choreographed matches. The result is a little like watching your frat brothers re-enact that week's WWE Raw episode after a serious kegger.
Celebrity Rehab's second season once again stars Dr. Drew Pinsky taking eight C and D list notables through drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Any satisfaction you feel seeing stars from the '80s and '90s brought low vanishes as you watch them babbling incoherently and sinking back into the habits that brought them into recovery in the first place.
Judge's decision: Rehab is the guiltier pleasure here, because Pinsky really seems to think his show is less about judgmental voyeurism than helping once-pampered celebrities.
Round 2: Celeb appeal
Hulk's show lines up an impressive list of freakazoid attention-seekers, including: former NBA star Dennis Rodman; violence-prone ex-child star Danny Bonaduce; ex-Saved by the Bell and sex tape star Dustin Diamond; ex-Diff'rent Strokes actor and former addict Todd Bridges; faded '80s pop star Tiffany; celebrity brother Frank Stallone; Playboy playmate Nikki Ziering; ex-Bewitched actor Erin Murphy; heavyweight boxer ButterBean; and perpetual reality TV participant Trishelle Cannatella. As you might expect, bad boys Bonaduce and Rodman perform best in tonight's episode.
Pinsky's Rehab features a more eclectic mix: renowned nutjob actor Gary Busey; former Guns N' Roses drummer Steven Adler; perpetual celeb rehabber Jeff Conaway; former Whitesnake video vixen Tawny Kitaen; walking civics lesson Rodney King; American Idol burnout Nikki McKibbin; model Amber Smith; and singer Rod Stewart's son, Sean. Two lessons here: Rehabbing addicts are serious drama queens, and Pinsky didn't need a neurosurgeon to prove what fans already knew — Busey's 1988 motorcycle accident produced brain damage lowering his inhibitions.
Judge's decision: Rehab wins again. Seeing '70s sitcom stars practice forearm smashes pales in comparison to watching Busey wig out because cameras are following him (didn't he realize this was a TV show?) and Smith collapsed on the floor, puking into a wastebasket.
And the winner is ...
Despite muscular play-by-play calls from Tampa radio guy Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and the stewardship of Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea, CMT's wrestling show can't match the pathos and eye-opening drama of Celebrity Rehab. Watching TV stars struggling to cop fake wrestling moves just makes you laugh; seeing familiar faces fighting through sickness and shame to kick addiction makes you feel a little dirty — just before you TiVo the next episode.