The Hasselhoffs debuts tonight on A&E at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The Osbournes was one of the most influential TV shows of the past 20 years, right up there with Twin Peaks and The Sopranos and Seinfeld and Survivor, but pretty much no one ever talks or thinks about it. It created a format (the live-action "reality" sitcom) that numerous marginal cable networks have used to stay alive and even thrive. If the Osbourne family hadn't deigned to allow cameras into their houses for a few weeks out of the year and then have their lives turned into something straight out of Father Knows Best, it's arguable that networks like E! or VH1 would even exist. While there's been basically no change to the format since The Osbournes debuted (a lack of evolution surprising by even TV standards), the benefits to these marginal networks and the PR benefits to the celebrities participating in these shows (even if the show seems to mock the celebrity, said celebrity usually gets to control the message, to a degree, even if they look like a buffoon) are so substantial that it seems unlikely the format will go away any time soon.
Really, it's that little-commented-on good-PR aspect of these celebrity reality shows that seems to be the primary impetus behind A&E's new The Hasselhoffs, one of the more promoted types of these shows in recent years. David Hasselhoff and his two daughters have agreed to let the cameras into their lives for however many weeks (the fact that the premiere focuses on daughter Hayley landing a role in the ABC Family summer series Huge suggests this was filmed quite a while ago). This comes at a time when Hasselhoff's name suggests not only his success as the star of Knight Rider and Baywatch but also the ubiquitous YouTube video of the star lying on the ground in a drunken stupor, trying to eat a cheeseburger. The Hasselhoffs makes blatant mention of the video several times, even trying to turn someone asking Hasselhoff about how he handled the bad press from it into an oh-so-dramatic act break.
The Hasselhoffs allows David Hasselhoff to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. He's no longer the super stud TV star of his salad days (or the "German Elvis," as he refers to himself at one point), but he's also no longer the drunk on the floor that you may remember from the Internet. He's David Hasselhoff, goofy sitcom dad, a guy who really cares about his daughters and tries to be supportive of their dreams, while wondering if daughter Taylor Ann's hopes to ditch going to college in favor of starting up a band with her sister are really the best hopes for her to pin her future on. The image of David Hasselhoff as a concerned parent, one who wants the daughter he knows can make something out of herself outside of the world of show business to pursue those talents, is the overriding one here, and nearly every frame is massaged to suggest that this is who he really is, not that scary drunk on the floor.
But "The Hoff" (who constantly refers to himself as Hoff) IS a pretty engaging media presence, which would suggest how he's stayed vaguely relevant all these years. When he visits Taylor Ann's college to give a speech to her psychology class (for some reason) and launches into a routine where he talks to his 12-year-old self about the perils of alcoholism, it could feel incredibly creepy or weird, but instead feels vaguely amusing and sweet. He's just another doofy dad, trying to make sure that the kids of the younger generation don't screw up their lives like he did! His concern for his daughter's plan to leave college is genuine, and his joy when Hayley lands the part on Huge is similarly easy to see. Hasselhoff's been on a massive reality show blitz designed to counteract the bad press of the past few years (why else would he appear on Dancing With The Stars?), but this show may be his most effective weapon yet. He oozes sincerity and the persona of a well-meaning but bumbling suburban dad. It might be his finest role yet, no matter how much of it is real.
Though the audience is aware at all times of how any opinions of Hasselhoff are filtered heavily through the show's view of him, there's something in the series' relationship to its main character, its fascination with his own delusions, that could make for a solid entry in this "genre." But these series are only as successful as their "supporting casts," and The Hasselhoffs falls down in that regard. Hayley Hasselhoff is a talented young actress, but she doesn't exude screen presence, so attempts to keep up with her acting career usually deflate whatever goodwill the show has built up. The same goes for Taylor Ann, who, honestly, seems like kind of a brat much of the time she's on screen. She wants to quit college to start a band? And who's ever going to take that band seriously, no matter how good it is? But the show is so careful not to tread on its subjects' toes that this is all taken at face value, as though it's a great idea for Taylor Ann to pursue her dreams, no matter the setbacks. Again, contrast this with The Osbournes, where the basic format was of a family sitcom, but the series had a good sense of just how much its central four subjects were putting on screen personas (at least in the first season).
Also, because Hayley and Taylor Ann just aren't that interesting, the show is far too boring for far too much of its running time. Pretty much anything is forgivable in a show of this type, so long as it at least remains amusing or salacious. The Hasselhoffs is neither. It never stops feeling like an attempt to turn around bad press on the part of its central character, and any gags it comes up with feel heavily, heavily scripted. (In particular, the opening scene, where David and Hayley talk about what's going on in their lives, feels like it was written by someone who wanted to make sure that everyone in the audience knew everything about David's situation going in.) There's a clumsiness to all of this, particularly in the rampant over-use of David Hasselhoff's voice-over, which tries to impart life lessons the guy has learned in his lengthy career but never stops feeling like it's pushing a little too hard. It doesn't help that he provides similar voiceover over scenes he should, realistically, have no idea are happening, but for the cameras in his house, like heart-to-heart conversations between his daughters. (Though there is one amusing unintentional edit, where a cut from the sisters talking about their band to David watching something on a computer suggests he's been watching them THE WHOLE TIME.)
Which brings us back, ultimately, to the idea of the celebrity reality show as a genre. In the years since The Osbournes invented the format, no one's really tried to do anything else with it. For better or worse, these shows rely on the strength of the personalities at the center and the willingness of the characters to appear as if they're complete idiots (Newlyweds was good in this regard). We're smart enough to know in this media age that every aspect of these shows is cannily agreed to upfront by producers negotiating with stars, each side trying to get more leverage, but the fact that so many of these shows don't even bother to mask this fact anymore is more dispiriting than it should be. The Hasselhoffs is just the latest attempt to avoid coming up with a new spin on the central premise of "Stars! They're just like us!" and it's the latest attempt to fail.