The great thing about being Vanilla Ice is that you take chances and try different things without worrying about embarrassing yourself and becoming a punch line, because that ship has sailed. (David Kellogg, the director of our hero’s 1991 movie debut Cool As Ice, must look wistfully at Tommy Wiseau and think, “What does he have that I don’t have?”) The only man in the music industry whose fantasy episode of This Is Your Life might include appearances by Suge Knight. Madonna, the Insane Clown Posse, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ice reportedly became seriously involved in the lucrative fields of home improvement and real estate in the late ‘90s, which, as he delicately put it in a recent interview, is “how I didn’t end up like Hammer.” For the past three years, Ice has been demonstrating his handyman skills on The Vanilla Ice Project, a series on the DIY Network, a channel that is basically a 24-hour-a-day homage to This Old House, complete with reruns of This Old House. Now, in the second spinoff of Project, Ice journeys to Holmes County, Ohio, to hang with the Pennsylvania Dutch and play Harrison Ford to a bunch of white-bearded old dudes who no one would ever confuse with Kelly McGillis.
Vanilla Ice—or Rob, as everyone in the show calls him, because it costs us nothing to treat a man with more dignity than he would ever show toward himself—is psyched to work with the Amish, because he’s heard of their high level of craftsmanship and “attention to detail.” (By the time the premiere episode is half over, it’s clear that having Vanilla Ice compliment you on your attention to detail is like having Mattie Ross swear on the soul of her father that you have true grit.) After a scenic tour, with Rob doing his best version of Anthony Bourdain in travelogue mode (“Look at that lady plowing that field!”), Rob checks in with his new best friend and landlord, John Schlabach, who has been waiting a long time for this chance to show the soft English what they’ve been missing, so long as his religious customs prevent him from going after Conan’s job. “I’ve heard that you used to be Vanilla Ice,” he tells Rob, who’s curious about whether any word of his exploits has penetrated this Midwestern Brigadoon. Having established that Rob’s fame has a musical component, John wheezes, “I sing solo, too, y’know. So low, you can’t hear it!” Much to his credit, Ron assents that that’s a good one.
For his first assignment, Rob sets about sprucing up the kitchen area of Clara and Eli Hershberger, who’ve had some bad luck recently and could use the pick-me-up. After sizing up the situation—and helping Clara with the wash, which impresses her mightily, since she knows that celebrities don’t do their own laundry—Rob assembles “an A-Team! That’s Amish team. Of ninjas!” At one point, while everyone is banging and sawing away, Rob quips, “If Clara got home and the tub was in her kitchen, we’d all be in big trouble.” You have to have a special place in your heart for a man who goes out of his way to drop a Breaking Bad reference on a room full of guys who have never watched television. In the end, the upgrade is finished, with natural-gas-powered stove and refrigerator and fancy new countertops. Clara is visibly moved, and Eli slips in the information that it’s her birthday. “This is gonna be the best birthday present ever!” says Rob. After all, what’s Clara going to do, try to prove him wrong by consulting Wikipedia? If Rob’s influence is rubbing off on the Amish, it appears to be working in a different direction. At the end of the show, the Hershbergers face the camera, and Clara proudly proclaims, “Eli here is my Amish ninja!”
Will the Amish ways rub off much on Rob? In his narration, Rob pays tribute to the custom of sitting on the front porch at the end of the day, where one can “marinate with their family and friends.” We see Rob and John Schlabach sitting on the porch marinating together, though the camera keeps its distance, lest John get off too many knee-slappers too early in the series run. But after flirting with the idea of donning traditional Amish garb, without such decadent fripperies as buttons and zippers, Rob blows it off and spends most of the episode traipsing around the Green Acres setting dressed for a pick-up basketball game, a look that he maintains in the clips of future episodes that comes at the end. (Albert, who makes the introductions, says that “When the Hershbergers met Rob, I think they were kinda taken with the earrings, and some of the attractions that he has all over his body.”) Nor does he readily take to trying to make his way to the dark bathroom by candlelight, or trying to pull himself together in the morning without a mirror. Rob himself is perfectly polite and friendly and respectful of his hosts—he’s no Paris Hilton on The Simple Life—but it’s easy to imagine him sneaking out after lights out for a Big Mac, with or without the camera crew.
This is a silly, contrived excuse for a show, but on its middling terms, it’s kind of likable, like Rob. Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Give Vanilla Ice some credit. After such stunts as a celebrity boxing match with Todd Bridges and a season of The Surreal Life, he’s found a way to keep his brand alive while doing something constructive. I know it’s a low bar to jump, but at least he’s not running around trying to play cop like Steven Seagal. And he does man up and do his chores. After grumbling about having to get up early, he grabs a pitchfork and starts helping out on the farm by shoveling manure. “You’re doing pretty good, for a greenhorn,” John tells him. From the way he sounds, you’d think that Rob had past experience at shoveling manure. You know, some of the jokes are too easy even for me…
- If this show had an official motto, it would definitely be something with “ninja” in it, but my vote still goes to John’s line: “In a day or so, you’ll see steam coming out of the pile.”
- The most fun thing about this show is just the unfamiliar experience of seeing people on TV who don't instinctively understand how you're supposed to act on TV, because their sensibilities haven't been, well, marinated in slick media hipness. The regular Amish guy Albert speaks with such a distracted, blank-faced zombie affect that you have expect him to say that Vanilla Ice is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being he's ever met in his entire life, and there's a priceless moment when, without varying his delivery or changing his expression, he announces, "The reason I'm so excited…"