Good example how reality TV has really gone to the dogs

February 06, 2003|By KEVIN COWHERD

Apparently it's not enough that we have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of nitwits willing to debase themselves on sleazy TV reality shows - now we're getting our pets involved, too.

That's one conclusion to be drawn from the premiere last weekend of Pet Star, which airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on the Animal Planet cable channel and is billed as "the search for America's most talented pet."

Yes, think of Pet Star as a horribly twisted mutation of American Idol, or a longer - but far less clever - version of the "Stupid Pet Tricks" segment on David Letterman's show.

The only difference is that on American Idol the contestants appear incapable of shame.

Whereas the four-legged and winged contestants on Pet Star seem truly mortified, to the point where, if they were capable of speech, they would gaze up at their owners with beseeching eyes and say: "Please don't make me do this."

Sadly, of course, they have no say in the matter.

The masses must be entertained and if it takes demeaning many of the species that made it onto Noah's ark for the sake of a few Nielsen ratings points, then, by God, let the games begin!

So on the season premiere of Pet Star we were treated to (among other acts): Ginger the pick-pocketing dog; Dutch, a roller-skating macaw; Smithfield the painting pig; Charlie the bowling dog; and Shebang, another dog that, um, stands in Tupperware.

I know, I know . . . where's PETA when you really need it?

Anyway, the show has perpetually grinning Mario Lopez as its host, who's best known for playing Slater on Saved By the Bell and whose career has now, officially, been pushed over a cliff.

Celebrity judges for the first show were Baywatch babe Gena Lee Nolin - what, you expected Margaret Thatcher? - and Peter Scolari, who's been in movies and on TV and is actually very funny. (Of the macaw's act, Scolari commented: "When the stories are written about roller-skating birds, Dutch will help write them.")

The third celebrity judge was Lindsay Wagner, who once played The Bionic Woman and now feigns delight when a 10-year-old named Abigail from Ohio rubs her pet frog's stomach to "hypnotize" him.

By the way, the pets and their owners compete for a cash prize of $2,500 and a chance to win 25 grand if the pet turns out to be the big star of the season.

But mainly what this seems to be is a chance for Animal Planet to get in on the reality TV craze, with a low-budget show built around a smallish studio, tiny stage and cheesy music and sound effects.

The problem is that, at least in the season premiere, many of the acts were under-whelming.

Ginger, the pick-pocketing dog, for instance, needed two chances to clip the wallet from a pocketbook on a chair.

And when she finally did poke the pocketbook open with her snout and grab the wallet, money flew all over the floor.

Tell me something: Is it possible to feel embarrassed for a dog? Because if Ginger were a real pick-pocket, she'd be doing 60 days in the slammer right now.

Then again, to see Mario Lopez's reaction, this was the greatest act since they bound Houdini in chains and he escaped from an airtight, water-filled tank.

"Oh, my God! Oh, my God! That was great!" he cried.

Unfortunately, the great state of Maryland was represented by Shebang the Tupperware-standing border collie, owned by a woman named Tammy Rudd.

One thing you quickly discovered was this: Watching a dog stand in Tupperware is not the most exciting thing in the world. In fact, it's not much more interesting than watching, say, left-over macaroni in Tupperware.

The highlight of Shebang's act involved cramming all four of her paws into a single plastic tub and balancing there for a few seconds.

Predictably, Lopez went absolutely nuts over this.

"Look at that! That takes athletic skills!" he gushed.

But mainly what it took was very small paws, a fact acknowledged by the judges, who failed to vote Shebang as one of the top three acts.

In fairness, there was one terrific act on Pet Star and that was Skidboot, billed as "the ultra-obedient dog."

Owned by a tall, engaging Texan named David Hartwig, Skidboot took the $2,500 top prize for stalking a stuffed animal.

Now, maybe that doesn't sound like a big deal. But it was, because Skidboot stalked only on low voice commands from Hartwig, who had the dog move forward, step back and eventually freeze with his snout inches from the toy until he - Hartwig, not Skidboot - counted to three.

I don't know, maybe you had to be there. But Skidboot was a huge hit, honest.

After the act, Hartwig told Lopez - who practically needed a sedative at this point - that he trained Skidboot by actually getting down on all fours and mimicking what he wanted the dog to do.

You wonder if that's how the Tupperware-standing dog was trained, too.

Although that may be something we'd rather not know.

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