After its first 22 minutes, Bravo’s new docudrama “Hey Paula!” remains a mystery. It’s not a look at a life that’s a crumbling disaster, nor is it exactly a humanizing portrait of the “American Idol” judge and former pop star.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the tepid matron of “American Idol” is not on display here, nor is the crazy insane Paula. In fact, this Paula Abdul comes across as an altogether different person from the one America was re-introduced to five years ago when the FOX talent competition debuted.
There are actually two Paulas on Bravo’s new series: the diva and the comic. Paula is unexpectedly hysterical, occasionally throwing off witty one-liners. “The last time I had a hit record, Bill and Hillary were having sex,” she says. At another point, she mangles a self-effacing joke about Joan Rivers commenting on her clothing, and Paula manages to crack herself up.
If only she was this openly funny on “American Idol,” where she sometimes giggles with Simon Cowell, but tends to be only amusing by accident, thanks to her often bizarre or unpredictable behavior. She’s also rarely this straightforward; in her real life, it seems, Paula actually has opinions and speaks in declarative sentences.
Fun Paula, however, is less prominent than spoiled, demanding Diva Paula. On the way to the airport, for instance, she discovers her assistants haven’t packed sweat pants or comfortable jeans for her red-eye flight, but have instead chosen pants that Paula says are too tight.
“You guys gotta think about these things. Not well thought out,” she says sternly. She orders them to get new clothes out of her suitcases, which they do curbside at the airport. When one assistant offers her black tennis shoes through the open window of the limo, Paula inexplicably gets upset because they’re not her white tennis shoes, and continues to insist upon her white shoes as if her assistant is hiding them and the magic word is more whining.
Paula later tells the camera, and thus the show’s viewers, “Can you freakin’ believe this?” No, we can’t: Nearly all of us pack our own suitcases, and we don’t have at least two people doing it for us who we can berate because we’re tired and frustrated with our tough lives as celebrities.
More than once, as in that moment, the camera seems to become Paula’s confidante, her best friend, even when she’s surrounded by other people. At QVC to promote her new line of jewelry, she discovers that some if it is not quite right. After arguing for a moment with those around her, she looks at the camera, clearly upset, and mouths, “This is exhausting!”
Why should viewers care about Paula?
That desperation for a friend heightens her loneliness and sadness, and humanizes her in a way that makes the show potentially insightful and absorbing. After the Grammys, she walks down the streets of Los Angeles in her designer gown, searching for her limousine, and a fan yells out a car window, “I’m forever your girl!” and also tells Paula that she is a legend.
“A legend!” Paula exclaims, and then trips, completely lost in the compliment. That moment should be what the series is all about.
Yet the fundamental contradiction is that Paula’s emotions and attitude occasionally seem like those of a grounded, sympathetic person, but her attitude and behavior is regularly and incomprehensibly diva-ish. Perhaps that’s a defense mechanism, layers of protection built up over years of criticism, or perhaps she believes that being famous makes her more special and different. “Hey Paula!” doesn’t offer a clear answer, at least not in its first half-hour.
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While networks have turned mostly to competition-based reality shows, the docudrama—the original reality show format, one that lets cameras roll and then presents the footage edited into a serial narrative—mostly lives on cable, and Bravo produces some of the most engaging docudramas currently on television. Just as its competitive shows have all modeled themselves after “Project Runway,” however, “Hey Paula!” roughly follows the same formula as Bravo’s other docudramas. There’s the sometimes awkward, frequently scripted narration by its star, in addition to moments that appear to have occurred for the benefit of the cameras, such as when Paula shows off her “Bratz” movie designs to a member of her entourage.
There’s even a product to promote that somehow isn’t quite up to the star’s standards, which has happened on both “Blow Out” and “Work Out.” However, the half-hour format of “Hey Paula!” (the others are all hour-long shows) moves too quickly to establish the same sort of drama that erupted from, say, “Blow Out”’s Jonathan Antin when he launched his line of hair products.
Unlike those other shows, however, “Hey Paula!”’s supporting cast has yet to be developed as full characters, as her assistants, stylist, and publicist remain elusive. Paula is the main attraction, but the show desperately needs a supporting cast of more than stock characters to sustain its narrative and help us learn more about Paula.
The idea might be for us to only care about Paula, but for both the desperate and insecure Paula to fit together with the obnoxious prima donna, the audience needs to see why other people like her (like Kathy Griffin’s Bravo show does so flawlessly), and why they tolerate Paula’s behavior, unless it’s just for the paycheck. Paula Abdul has let cameras into her life, but the resulting series hasn’t yet let us in.
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