There is a point in every Hollywood star’s career where fans wish the star would just fade away. It is better to live on as a happy memory than to keep grasping at the brass ring of stardom and spiral down into a morass of B-list-or-worse actors. Once upon a time there was a clear career progression for much-loved entertainment characters: movie stardom led to television variety shows which turned into mid-afternoon game show appearances and ultimately ended up as a guest-starring role on “The Love Boat.” After that, it was mimosas on the beach in Kailua and royalty checks until the Ultimate Curtain Call.
The same is true for television events and in the Pantheon of Shows America Misses Because It Wants To Miss, no god rules higher than the Miss America pageant.
I remember tuning in to the pageant as a kid, excited over the notion of seeing some gorgeous (older!) girls in bikinis as my family snarfed down the Mystery Carbohydrate & Cheese Casserole of the Week from our TV trays. The very fact that we, and everyone we knew, had TV trays said a lot about the power of television in those days. It was our window to the world, shaping our viewpoints of each other and ourselves. My sister would lament not having a figure like the girls onscreen, my mum would cluck over how much of those figures were exposed for everyone to see onscreen, my dad was just happy to be home from work, and I of course tried not to pay too much attention when Miss Hawaii appeared.
Fast forward to 2006. It is only a few years later on the calendar but a lifetime or two in pop culture. During that span, television channels bred like rabbits, the nuclear family was the only real atomic implosion from the Cold War, and if you’re a pre-teen boy with half a brain cell, there are many, many more places to ogle gorgeous girls today. The world changed, and despite Miss America’s admirable goal of providing valuable scholarships and entertainment, America just doesn’t want or need it anymore.
America’s shift away from Miss America has been seen for years. Ratings declined on ABC until the network finally pulled the plug on broadcasting the pageant last year, and organizers scrambled to find a new broadcast outlet. The pageant’s new home on Country Music Television is strangely-apt, given the South’s predilection for beauty queens, but it now seems forever cursed to a broadcasting double-wide down by the advertising river. The national audience is no more, cast aside in favor of our modern desire to preach to the base.
The “entertainment” portion of the show became ever more self-parodying to the point that this year’s opening montage to introduce each contestant felt like a bad episode of “The Simpsons.” Saturday night used to be a hot night for television with “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” drawing families by the millions in the dark days before soccer games, XBox 360 and the Internet. In 1976, Bert Parks wafting onstage singing “There She Is…” in the same manner Ricardo Montalban would sell Plymouth Volare sedans at the commercial break was as cool as rich Corinthian leather. Thinking that similar formats and styles would work just as well in 2006 leads to a host of viewer confusion: is Miss America trying to be ironically detached cool, self-referential cool or just retro in a bad way?
James Denton, better known to America as the angst-ridden plumber (and aren’t they all?) Mike Delfino on “Desperate Housewives,” did a solid job hosting the show and even showed some ad-libbing sparkle. But one cannot help wondering how much Miss America wants to be back on ABC given that the pageant selected both a host (Denton) and a guest judge (Brenda Strong) from ABC’s hottest show to participate. Was this an unconscious nod to the changing times or a shameless attempt to suck up by a jilted lover? In the end, it probably doesn’t matter.
Miss America 2006 held all the trappings of a lifetime achievement award presentation at the Academy Awards. You love the actor and have many fond memories of past performances. Yet watching this aging show slowly climb the stairs reminds you how much time has passed, and how much the player just isn’t relevant anymore. The swimsuit doesn’t fit as well as it used to, the talent show prompts painful mental comparisons to the early episodes of each season’s “American Idol” (the ones without real talent), and there is a slight tang of confusion flavoring the entire experience. Who are we, and why are we here?
The audience claps and cheers, but they too sit nervously in memories of days when tap dancing was cool and hair was bigger. You find yourself hoping, praying, that nothing embarrassing happens. “Just smile, crown the biggest teeth and move back into the safe time machine of my past” you whisper to yourself. And like those aging Hollywood icons, it is time for Miss America to hang up her tap shoes, put away the pancake makeup and like a Bert Parks of yesteryear, go gracefully into the night.
Ian Ferrell writes from a state of ennui that he never finished his tap dancing lessons.