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[whitespace] Chris Isaak Call Waiting: Chris Isaak is typecast as himself in 'The Chris Isaak Show.'

Heart-Shaped Show

Being Chris Isaak on TV is a lot like being Chris Isaak in real life

By Gina Arnold

'THE CHRIS ISAAK SHOW" debuted on Showtime last week, and for once in my hypercritical life, I can't decide if it's good or bad. Is it--as my friend Sam, who taped it for me, contends--a dull, poorly acted and ill-conceived vanity project, or is it a witty and ironic glimpse into the real life of a local luminary?

Usually, I am absolutely certain what I think about such things. (Hence, my job.) But The Chris Isaak Show has me puzzled. Could it be a little bit of both?

Part of my confusion may stem from the fact that last December I got to visit the set of the Chris Isaak "shoot" in Vancouver. I couldn't tell what the episode they were working on would be like from the snippets of scenes I saw being performed, but the overall experience was fairly positive.

In fact, it practically made me want to work in TV, a highly uncharacteristic reaction for me, at least around cameras. Music-video shoots, for example, just make me want to shoot myself. So do most TV shows. But this was different. For one thing, it felt creative. For another, everyone on the set was unbelievably nice, which is not often the case around rock & roll types.

The show was filmed in the old Chrysler Factory in West Vancouver. It had been divided into large soundstages, each one decorated like a different locale in San Francisco: Bimbo's, Bimbo's basement, the Fillmore, Chris' house, Chris' garage and the San Francisco Police Department, to name but a few. Each scene would move from set to set, and during each scene, a character or two would speak a brief 30 seconds or so of dialogue.

It was all very elaborate. I was also surprised by the way things would occur on the set with no walls. Later, I was startled to see the show on TV--how it actually looks as if the actors are in a real room, not on a big open "flat." Now I have a hard time seeing anything on TV without picturing all the people I now know are huddled around on the fringes sipping coffee.

Because it was winter in Vancouver, the set was extremely chilly. We all bundled up in winter coats the whole day long, and the extras--who were wearing the kind of thin silk dresses girls often wear to Bimbo's at night--suffered madly. Meanwhile, in another part of the building, the show's executive producers (read: writers), Andy Schneider and Diane Frolov, were ensconced in their own office with their two fluffy poodles, correcting dialogue and working on the next week's episode. Their main job--besides plotting--is to make the real Chris into a fictional character, preferably one with a quip on his lips at all times.

LATER, ISAAK told me that he'd conceived of a show about himself as the perfect vehicle for his talents: musician, actor, comedian. The original idea was for a half-hour sitcom ("like I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners," Isaak explained), but the production company that bought the concept decided to expand it into an hour and make it more like one of those comic dramas, like Ally McBeal or The Larry Sanders Show.

Frolov and Schneider were also responsible for Northern Exposure, and there are definitely hints of that show in this one: the slow pacing, the lack of obvious jokes, the quizzical looks on the faces of the characters when something quirky happens, and the myriad of close-up reaction shots. It is supposed to have a "mockumentary" feel to it, like those movies by Christopher Guest (Best in Show).

So how real is this reality show? "As real as the taste of cherry in a cherry-flavored gum," Isaak snorted. It's not reality, of course, but I did think that the Chris on TV (the one created by Frolov and Schneider) approximated at least a little tiny bit the Chris I've met.

He has his same superpolite but faintly arrogant air, his simple-but-smart take on life and, frankly, his charm, which supercedes the fact that he is, at bottom, kind of lacking political correctness.

Those '50s rockabilly suits hide a '50s-era sensibility about certain liberal issues, but that doesn't really bother me: the fact of the matter is, Chris, who grew up in Stockton, is a rather quirky person, especially for a rock star. He doesn't smoke or drink or do drugs, and his sex life is clearly pretty quiet, especially for a rock guy. If anything, it's been beefed up for the series. He's not your most obvious choice for a reality TV show about rock, but I think that's a good thing. I wouldn't want to see the Eminem Show or, say, The David Grey Show.

Perhaps the appeal of The Chris Isaak Show depends on how much you like him as a person. But, alas, my friend Sam found him intolerable, and she is a Chris Isaak fan. I thought the music on the show--a concert sequence, an a cappella number, some snippets of music video--was pretty damn good, especially for TV, but I guess what I really liked about the show was that Chris' rock-star world really was like the world I know.

In the first episode, for example, the band goes on location to shoot a $180,000 music video. Most of that time is so boring that all they do is stand around and make eyes at the chicks. The sexy female star, Bai Ling, throws many temper tantrums.

The extremely young video director (responsible, we're told, for countless MTV video awards) acts like a total asshole. Various characters come on to other characters, and in the end, the gay assistant gets his own record label, presumably for sleeping with the boss.

Plotwise, it was all very thin and not exactly hilarious, but it was strangely lifelike--that is, if life proceeded a lot faster. As Chris said, "It's like life without the polyps."

What I liked best about the show wasn't violent, wasn't mean or exploitative of anyone. That in itself would keep me watching it for at least a little while longer, but I can't speak for you.

The Chris Isaak Show airs on Monday nights at 10pm on Showtime.

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From the March 29-April 4, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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