It never fails to crack me up. I'll be watching something loud and stupid on the local NBC affiliate. Then, right after the quarterback gets his shoulder popped back into the socket or the flinty protagonist cries, "Watch out, there's a ninja on your left!," the broadcast breaks for commercial. Inevitably, the first one that airs is a spot for syndicated entertainment-news mainstay "Extra."
In that promo, host Mario Lopez titters buoyantly. He exchanges shoulder-bump hugs with luminaries like Tom Cruise. He heaves up (and sinks) a mid-court shot at the Staples Center, reacting as if such successes are all in a day's work. Through it all, he maintains the delighted air of a bystander who happens onto gaudy after-after-parties with the same frequency that most of us happen into traffic jams. Where he is, the ad implies, is where you would be, if only you were cooler and taller and friendlier with Jamie Foxx and better proportioned to wear fitted black t-shirts.
While I realize that "Extra" has little say about the placement of these spots and the frequency with which they air, the show always manages to pop up at a moment when I'm conditioned to expect impassioned appeals on behalf of salty treats. It just kills me. I giggle.
The actual show, alas, provokes a contrary reaction. With all due respect to "Deal or No Deal" and Larry King, "Extra" is the single most weightless program on television today. By comparison, it makes lite-entertainment doppelganger "Access Hollywood" look like "Frontline Presents: Solzhenitsyn Unbound."
I can rationalize the popularity of mainstream slush that aims similarly ankle-low, like "Two and a Half Men" (easy-to-digest humor, familiar sitcom setting) or the Black Eyed Peas ("It has a good beat and you can dance to it"). I cannot comprehend why "Extra" succeeds to the extent that my local NBC affiliate chooses to air each episode three times a day. Three!
The show's great genius, really, is that it somehow wrings 22 minutes of air time out of roughly eight minutes' worth of content. At the start of each episode, "Extra" teases a series of items extensively; it does this again both heading into and coming out of commercial breaks. It's not like any of these stories demand extensive detail, yet "Extra" treats each one as if it requires multi-layered, nuanced explication.
But maybe it's that tone and presentation that also keeps viewers tuning in as the show approaches its 16th birthday. This week, it sidestepped the absence of fresh scandal by delicately rehashing Tiger Woods' sexy predicament, possible replacements for Simon Cowell on "American Idol" and Farrah Fawcett's legacy. In all three instances, "Extra" emphasized sympathetic banter over loaded allegations. Compare this with TMZ's ongoing coverage of the Woods case: the site has basically opened a bureau in the guy's front yard.
Then there's Lopez himself, who redefines the role of the entertainment-show host on a daily basis. "Extra" keeps him on the move: Lopez "reports" while pushed up against a backdrop of control-room monitors, while sitting with his legs dangling over a shallow ledge, and while darting through the show's offices with his BlackBerry firmly palmed (you know, just in case Vince Vaughn feels the urge to check in). His go-to rhetorical moves are to ask the show's numerous shellacked correspondents a series of questions ("is [Elin's rumored deal to stay with Tiger] worth it?") or to converse with them in six-word sound bites (about the allegations that John Edwards assaulted his wife, Lopez weighed in with "If it's true, that's terrible").
Anyone lulled into a fugue state by the show's first few minutes of hard, brutal news, however, misses what "Extra" does best: product mentions. Correspondents checking in with the newly minted Oscar nominees practically pasted the Moet label on the camera lens, while a bit on Super Bowl ads gave special mention to Audi's new, homely, green super-car. I suppose such plugs must help underwrite what must be a five-figure budget for the excavation and upkeep of Lopez's ocean-deep dimple.
Getting worked up over piffle like "Extra" is akin to getting worked up when the person ahead of you in the grocery line spends 12 extra seconds wrestling creased bills into his wallet. That said, "Extra" hits the vacant/pointless/unfilling trifecta in every episode. If you're that desperate for lo-cal morsels about blowsy tarts and shirtless-in-SoCal tele-bachelors, just camp out at Pop Eater or read a magazine. Even Life & Style Weekly.