Valley of the Trolls

It’s the rare star who can withstand the predatory cameras of TMZ on TV.

By James Parker

“Am I on some kind of Web site for nuts and stalkers?” asked Paris Hilton, rhetorically (I think), during the premier episode of her new reality show, The World According to Paris. The question was occasioned by the recent appearance, at her home in the hills above Sherman Oaks, of a strange man with two big knives. Not outwardly perturbed—unreadably sleek, in fact, at the wheel of her bubble-gum Bentley—Paris took off in the direction of her mother’s house. “I’m, like, freaked out right now,” she complained upon arrival, while on her lips there played, as ever, the Sphinxian, minxian, languorous half-smile that has made her one of the fascinations of the age.

As Paris of course knows, she’s on all the Web sites for nuts and stalkers, and there are plenty of them. The nut/stalker, indeed, has never been so well served. Arrayed Web-wide for his delectation are PerezHilton, PopEater, Starpulse, Radar Online, The Superficial, Egotastic, and the daddy of them all, the operation that most convincingly gives the impression of being run not just for nuts and stalkers, but by nuts and stalkers: TMZ. At TMZ.com, the news is always “breaking,” and exclusive tumbles upon the heels of exclusive: Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, Mel Gibson’s DUI, Nicolas Cage’s son’s fight with his personal trainer. Secure in our own lack of nut/stalker tendencies, we can pop by TMZ.com to review in tranquility the objects of our envy, lust, scorn, and devouring schadenfreude. The nut/stalker, on the other hand, solitary and perhaps trouserless, building his homemade laser beam of fixation … Well, it’s different for him. Right? It must be.

Launched in 2005 by Harvey Levin (the longtime host and legal reporter on The People’s Court), TMZ has crushed its competitors by means of (a) scoops—being first, for example, with the news of Michael Jackson’s death; (b) astute branding—its cool-sounding name stands for “Thirty Mile Zone,” referring to the “studio zone” around Hollywood; and (c) the cross-platform synergistic whammy of its TV show. In half-hour weekday segments plus an hour-long weekend special, the nationally syndicated TMZ on TV tracks the latest showbiz crapola, cutting back and forth between staff meetings at TMZ HQ and street clips from the TMZ “videographers” as they accost celebrities outside restaurants. The show is diabolical—and I think I mean that literally, insofar as I am persuaded that certain lower-order demons (poorly trained, cheesed-off, regularly denied their lunch break) have a hand in its production, and that exposure to it constitutes a genuine spiritual hazard. Having said that, Genuine Spiritual Hazard is my middle name. So earlier this summer, I watched TMZ on TV for two weeks straight. Here’s what I saw.

I saw, first of all, an office. This is the interior portion of the TMZ show: cubicles, sallow light, layers of human sourness in the carpet-crackle. Like all offices, it reminds one of The Office (U.K. version), with the part of David Brent played in this case by Harvey—a small man, but an enormous parasite, often seen slurping through a straw on some kind of mega-smoothie or protein shake as if on the marrow of Shia LaBeouf. T-shirted, buff, and health-nut radiant, Harvey stands with his elbows resting atop a cubicle partition—the height of which fortuitously promotes biceps-display and a mild flaring of the lats—and faces his swivel-chaired staffers.

“We’ve got Clay Matthews leaving the Nike Store,” they offer, or “We’ve got Balthazar Getty at the King’s Road Cafe.” They show him the clip, and then they say nasty little things about it, everyone chipping in. Harvey laughs, but you won’t, the wit on offer being approximately at the level of a YouTube comments thread. Actually, this is a YouTube comments thread, in the flesh, as it were—a cumulative soul-suck, a leering pig pile of insult. Surveying shots of Lindsay Lohan under house arrest, on her sunny rooftop, the TMZers begin their troll-riffs. “She’s gonna have a nasty tan line,” says Boyish Cheeks, “’cause I got a photo of her little ankle bracelet she has to wear now, the monitoring one.” “That girl can’t even get tan,” says Heavy-Metal Guy. “Yeah, she just gets extra freckly,” contributes Gadfly at the Back. “They’re doin’ her a favor,” decides Heavy-Metal Guy, “keepin’ the freckles off her ankle!” Heh, heh, heh. Jade plants droop, AC drones, and all the babies in Limbo throw up.

Who are these staffers? Is it a great job for a young person, an oppor-toon-ity, working for TMZ? Did Harvey find them all in a back alley, torturing cats? They don’t look like hissing slobs—they’re quite presentable and even attractive. But the mark is upon them, discernibly. Small signals of moral rot are being sent—the eye-flicker, the distorted nostril—as they slag off Julia Roberts or The Situation. Blond Girl is slumped and catty; Heavy-Metal Guy talks in a whiny-snivelly voice, suggestive of detachment or severance from the deeper portions of his personality. Look out, kids: the wind will change and you’ll be stuck like that, a stroke-victim sneer fixed on your face.

Then there’s the outdoor portion of the show. This takes place on the streets of L.A., where the light twangs like a psychedelic hangover and celebrities cringe before the pursuing lens. TMZ’s mobile units—Hedda Hopper, the McCarthyite gossip witch, would have called them her “legmen”—go after anybody with an IMDb entry, lobbing daft or insulting questions. “Why have you done any of this work?” a TMZer demands of Balthazar Getty, following him along the sidewalk. “Why aren’t you just somewhere chilling with that oil money?” (“I’m an artist, man,” Getty insists, a little painfully. “I have to express myself! I just don’t want to sit on my fat ass in Italy.”) I begin to ask myself: How long are the celebs going to take it? Who will be bold or maddened enough to give one of these scavengers his comeuppance? Gary Busey gets TMZ’d (Blow their minds, Businator! Use your powers!), and he waxes gently philosophical. Lady Gaga gets TMZ’d (Stab them, Gaga! With your shoulder pad!), and she winces and moves on. But then the comedian Thomas Lennon (of Reno 911!) gets TMZ’d by a two-camera crew as he emerges jauntily from a cab at LAX. “TMZ?” he frowns. “Come on, man. Pfft.” Then he steps back, bounces on the balls of his feet, announces “This is two paps: Double Dick-Kick, 2011!,” sproings into the air with drastic nimbleness, and—yes!—sweetly split-kicks the TMZers, a toe cap in each groin. The camera lurches, and gratifying groans are heard.

What can be said in favor of TMZ on TV? I do admire its absolute lack of production values. Gossip should be like this: low-res, viral, shit-textured. Compared to Harvey and his staff, the glossy Entertainment Tonight anchors are overheated mannequins on a holodeck: it may soon be all over for them. And I relish TMZ’s bitter insight into the condition of celebrity—the condition, that is, of being endlessly vulnerable to camera goons and bellowing or insidious questioners. Celebrity, we now see, is not vertical: it doesn’t take you up and away. Rather, it spreads you out horizontally, shallowly, exposing you, on every street corner and in every doorway, to the people from TMZ.

A breed of person exists that can handle this, a rare breed: I was pleased to learn from my viewing that TMZ really hates Paris Hilton, heaping disdain, for example, on the debut of The World According to Paris (“The World According to Liar!”). But of course they hate her. She meets their predations with supermodel deadpan, with Zen porno-glint. Her eyes, as she gazes into their jabbing lenses, have the onanistic sheen of the born celebrity. They won’t put a dent in her.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/09/valley-of-the-trolls/308606/