Being called a "star" in this country used to be something of a rarefied honor. We reserved the term for our most celebrated actors, musicians and sports heroes. Once upon a time, we even allowed non-traditional celebrities like astronauts into the category. Whatever your thoughts on how deserving they were of adulation, they were few in number, and therefore easy to contain.
Times change. We still have our top tier of beautiful people -- the Will Smiths and Katy Perrys and Derek Jeters -- who are now referred to as "A-listers:" instantly recognizable and infinitely marketable. Problem is, there are other tiers as well, and the bubonic plague of celebrity worship in this country means even those in the bottom rungs are somehow able to find ways to jockey for our attention.
Combine that with the military fetishism that's been a hallmark of our society since the first Gulf War, take away any semblance of the gut-churning terror and futility of actual combat, and you've got Stars Earn Stripes.
The premise of the show reminds me of when my friends and I used to don oddments of camouflage clothing and take mock-up M-16s into the woods behind our houses and play war. Now imagine that with fitness trainers and a major network budget. Eight "celebrities" are paired with eight honest-to-Ares soldiers and law enforcement types to compete in a series of missions for various charities (that's how you cancel out the accusations of glorifying war, I guess) . In the Mark Burnett host role (he's one of the producers, BTW) is General Wesley Clark. You may remember him from such Presidential campaigns as 2004 (where he eventually dropped out and endorsed John Kerry). And just who are these contestants (bear in mind I caught the third episode, after Biggest Loser trainer Dolvett Quince and actor Terry Crews already got the boot)?
There's Dean Cain, star of TV's Lois & Clark and a staggering number of terrible straight-to-DVD films in the subsequent 15 years; Eve Torres, a two-time winner of pro wrestling's "WWE Divas Championship" (at least we know she's no stranger to fake combat); female boxer (and daughter of another fighter you may have heard of) Laila Ali; Nick Lachey, the boy band singer a decade removed from his heyday (and co-star of Rise: Blood Hunter!); Olympic gold medal skier Picabo Street; and finally Todd Palin, who -- in addition to being the husband of the biggest political punch-line of the last decade -- has won something called the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile championship four times. Frankly, if that race doesn't include a re-creation of the scene in Die Hard 2 where McLane jumps a Yamaha Apex over evil Special Forces guys lighting him up with machine guns, it's a total farce.
The mission this week is to secure a landing zone and then use an M2 "Mongoose" .50 calibre machine gun to blow up an "enemy ammunition bunker."
[What would happen if Marion "Cobra" Cobretti was forced to use a "Mongoose?" Would it alter space-time enough to trigger the discovery of the Higgs boson? Must contact the folks at the LHC.]
The remaining six celebs are paired up into teams: Cain/Torres, Palin/Street, and Lachey/Ali. Torres and Green Beret Grady Powell appear to be the ones to beat, having won the first week with Torres earning immunity the next week in a shootout (she shoots "like a boss," as Powell says). One almost detects a hint of affection between the two, and wouldn't NBC love that shit?
She and Cain (teamed up with Navy SEAL Chris Kyle) are first. Before the group can get to the fun part (firing the Mongoose), they have to use various small arms to shoot "land mines," get in their helicopter-delivered vehicle, and head to the bunker. Torres, Cain and company complete the mission with an impressive time of 5:30. Though to paraphrase Bruce Lee, land mines don't shoot back.
Clark, meanwhile, is back at the "command center" watching everything on a big table-top monitor like General Dodonna on Yavin IV. Jeez, from Presidential candidate to reality show host. The sad thing is, more people have seen him on the show than ever actually watched him speak on the campaign trail.
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Palin (with former Marine/curren NYC transit cop JW Cortez) and Street (with SEAL Brent Gleason) are the next team. Street takes some time to settle in, but blows up the land mines with aplomb. The real news here is Palin's relative lack of skill with the 9mm (perhaps they should have shaped the targets to look like moose). Still, they manage a respectable 7:19.
Finally, it's time for Lachey (and SWAT commander Tom Stroup) and Ali (and Navy Corpsman Talon Smith). Lachey is less accomplished as a soldier, which is a phrase you could apply to most of his endeavors, come to think of it. He yips a bit on shooting the FN SCAR assault rifle until Stroup calms him down (maybe he told him to imagine he was shooitng as J.C. Chasez), and Ali makes up for it on the M2. Shit, who wouldn't want to shoot that? More to the point, who wouldn't watch a woman shoot it? Credit the red-blooded he-man producers at NBC for ensuring that the female on each team ended up firing the extremely jiggle-inducing weapon.
The Lachey/Ali team end up with the slowest time (8:55), meaning they have to undergo the "elimination shootout." using small arms and a Barrett MRAD sniper rifle to trigger a big dynamite explosion which, watching SES, I'm now convinced happens to everything you shoot in wartime (sort of like how T.J. Hooker taught me every car chase ends up with one vehicle blowing up). Lachey wins, which means after three weeks, each of the show's black contestants has been knocked out. There are many conclusions we could draw from this, but clearly the most accurate one is: Wesley Clark doesn't care about black people.
Does Stars Earn Stripes glorify war? I'd like to say I'm reluctant to accuse audiences of being unable to distinguish between the terrible realities of modern warfare and watching a bunch of attractive pseudo-celebrities dicking around with cool looking weaponry, but how can I? What, if anything, about our current existence reflects the fact our nation's armed forces have been fighting (until recently) two military campaigns for almost ten years? If you don't personally know someone on active duty, have you even been affected (aside from not being able to winter on the Shatt al-Arab for the last decade)? If we aren't exposed to the realities of war in our day-to-day lives, why should we be expected to make the distinction on a fucking TV show?