TV Eye

Summer Funk

A.J. Benza
A.J. Benza

It started with all these summer-season launches. In the beginning there was hope, but as I tune in to one disappointment after the next, my patience is wearing thin. Right now, watching TV is as irritating as an underwire bra on a hot day.

I had a healthy curiosity and an open mind for the new E! talk show, A.J. After Hours. As I mentioned in an earlier column, I'm not much of a fan of A.J. Benza (host of E! Mysteries and Scandals), but I'm always interested in seeing attempts to retool the talk-show format. I've seen a total of three After Dark shows, and there's good news and bad news. The good news is, the format is faulty, but intriguing. The bad news: A. J. Benza is having more fun than I am and making a whole lot more money. This is a guy who admits that his work on M&S is largely as a meat puppet, which means he shows up for make-up then reads the teleprompter. On After Hours, he's required to do more -- a lot more. Set in a New York City loft at a "happening party," Benza not only has to chat it up with the guest of the moment, but also has to regale an apparently well-lubricated audience. Unfortunately, there's not a teleprompter in sight.

The show is weakest when it resorts to the traditional coffee-table interview, meaning Benza is seated solo and his guest is seated on a banana-yellow sofa. In these segments, Benza appears most uncomfortable. The stem of his upended wine glass is often captured in the cutaway shot to his guest, and his eyes dart rapidly from side to side, as if reading a teleprompter in his head. He's better at the chats that take place away from the couch, guest perched at the bar, near a piano, or in this strange contraption that looks like a cage precariously perched on the edge of a building.

There are several things to like about the show. One is the array of guests. How often do you see George Hamilton, Al Sharpton, Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, and Uncle Kracker all on the same bill? In case you hadn't noticed, those guests are male. Not that Benza has anything against women. On the contrary, he loves women -- beautiful women. The first show alone had three supermodels. (Benza takes great pains to point out that he likes his women beautiful and bright.) The first episode that had a woman of any substance was last week's episode with Broadway actress Lea DeLaria. Unfortunately, her "cage interview" was woefully short. Just as she was getting into the subject of being a dyke in show business, it was back to the banana couch for an interminable chat with another supermodel. This one wore a necklace made out of those female silhouettes from the mud-flaps on semi-trucks. When Benza commented on it, the model giggled something about liking it because it was "white trashy."

Unlike traditional entertainment talk shows, musical guests (so far) do not perform, offering a welcome opportunity to hear what someone like Uncle Kracker has to say for himself. Other segments include pre-recorded video chats with typical (and "hot") New Yorkers. Restaurant owners, party planners, and photographers are favorites so far, as is a recurring segment featuring a "hot" D.J. of the moment. Did I mention these people are "hot"?

If the hype is true, Benza -- the former New York Daily News gossip columnist -- was the king of schmoozers in the Apple before he took off for L.A. to launch M&S. His street-smart candor, his dark good looks, and the success of M&S are what landed him After Hours. Unfortunately, as a talk show host, he has two obsessions: women and what guests like to drink. Like the Kevin Bacon game, it's always likely that Benza will bring the talk back to his adolescent preoccupation with booze and babes. Another problem is the constant cutting back and forth between camera angles and from film to video, presumably in an effort to catch the most interesting nuggets of talk. If these nuggets are the best, I wonder what got left on the proverbial cutting room floor.

New episodes of A.J. After Hours premiere on Thursdays at 9pm on E!. Encore shows are Tuesdays at 2am, Saturdays at 9pm, and Sundays at 11pm.


Waste of Talent

Frank Langella leads a cast of superb actors (Elizabeth Mitchell, Harriet Sansom Harris, and Jason Gedrick) in The Beast, a drama about a cable news network that shoots from the hip, cuts against the grain, walks on the edge, aims for the jugular ... you get the idea. Unfortunately, the show is self-indulgent and appallingly one-dimensional, as in the first episode, the theme of which was: the death penalty, bad; telling the truth, good. The Beast airs Wednesday nights, 9pm, on ABC.

Kristin Chenoweth, the actress who charmed audiences as Sally in the Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown a few years back, stars in Kristin, a "wide-eyed young woman travels to the big city" comedy, only this one isn't as charming or funny as its namesake or some of its predecessors. Kristin airs Tuesday nights, 8:30pm, on NBC.

In another rendition of the challenge-game show, Fear Factor pits six people desperate to win a piddling $50,000 by submitting them to tests of strength and nerve. Host Joe Rogan, so perfect in NewsRadio, seems unsure if he should be coaching (ô la Regis Philbin), cajoling (Anne Robinson), or coolly observant (Jeff Probst). He mainly stands around uttering out-of-place phrases like "he screamed like a whore," or "he fagged out" when contestants quit. The show airs Mondays, 7pm, on NBC.


High Hopes

You Don't Know Jack. This trivia game show, based on a CD-Rom game, features Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) as fictional host Troy Stevens. Airs Wednesday nights, 7pm, ABC.

Spyder Games. Let it be known, I do not like soap operas, but this MTV rendition promises to be so irreverent, I may change my tune. Spyder Games is running in telenovela format, meaning there are only 65 episodes and then it's over. The half-hour soap airs nightly at 6 and 10pm on MTV.

E-mail Belinda Acosta at tveye@austinchronicle.com

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

A.J. Benza, A.J. After Hours, The Beast, Kristin, You Don't Know Jack, Spyder Games, Fear Factor, Kristin Chenoweth

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