Me @ The Zoo debuts on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Nothing takes the fun out of laughing at other people’s misfortune quite like acknowledging their fundamental humanity. That’s the lesson of Me @ The Zoo,a low-budget, Michael Stipe-executive-produced documentary about Chris Crocker, a flamboyantly gay cross-dressing teenager from rural Tennessee who rocketed to national infamy after releasing a viral video where he begged a parasitic press to, in his immortal words, “Leave Britney alone!” After a successful run on the festival circuit, the documentary is now making its television debut on HBO.

Advertisement

The video made Crocker an instant star for the YouTube age, even as it engendered a tidal wave of mockery and scorn, much of it viciously and explicitly homophobic in nature. YouTube comment boards bring out the worst in everyone, and Crocker found himself a ripe target for online abuse.

Crocker idolized and identified with Spears; he saw himself in her vulnerability and her exhibitionism, in the way she whipsawed between brassy flamboyance and child-like frailty. Me @ The Zoo is a quasi-self-portrait for the age of online narcissism; time and again the film segues from Crocker’s screamingly theatrical online displays to an army of online YouTube imitators compulsively imitating Crocker’s every shriek, shimmy, hair-flip, and freak-out. The film functions as a funhouse mirror reflecting Crocker’s obsessions back to him in increasingly extreme, distorted forms.

Me @ The Zoo follows Crocker as he tries to monetize his unlikely fame by traveling to Hollywood to shop a reality show about his life and bumps up hard against the limits of his already-fading celebrity. Zoo posits Crocker as a link between Warhol’s gender-bending, questionably talented “superstars” and YouTube celebrities whose fame often feels disconnected from their actual achievements.

Advertisement

The film makes an interesting companion piece to Britney & Kevin: Chaotic, Britney Spears and Kevin Federline’s disastrous attempt to transform their toxic courtship and tragic marriage into must-see TV with the help of cheap video cameras and a surreal absence of self-consciousness or self-respect. Britney & Kevin found Spears unmistakably on Crocker’s flamboyantly exhibitionist turf as she tried to elevate the mundane details of her day-to-day life and opinions into something that blurs the line between video blogging, performance art and a very public nervous breakdown. The crucial difference is that when it comes to the curious contemporary artform of total and complete self-disclosure/destruction, Croker is a greater artist than Spears: in this strange realm at least, where there is no real distinction between the art and the artist, she’s a rank amateur while he is a consummate professional.

Crocker proves surprisingly savvy and self-aware as his ephemeral fame begins to dissipate, Britney distances herself from him (truly the unkindest cut of all), his homeless mother spirals into meth addiction, and Crocker finds himself in desperate need of reinvention. Me @ The Zoo functions as a cautionary warning about the danger of fame untethered to substantive achievement but it’s also a surprisingly empathetic character study intent on understanding its oft-maligned and mocked protagonist.