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Simmons tops Tommy Lee as reality star

Times Staff Writer

“Lovely” and “moving” are not words I ever would have thought to apply to anything connected to mega-tongued, fire-spitting KISS frontman Gene Simmons. (I hear you say “Beth,” but that was Peter Criss.) Yet they are the very terms to describe “Gene Simmons’ Rock School,” a teenage reality makeover competition that premieres tonight on VH1, in a sort of “academic rock block” with the neither lovely nor moving nor remotely real “Tommy Lee Goes to College” (getting its cable-TV “second window” premiere, following its NBC bow Tuesday).

Arranged more or less along the lines of the Jack Black film “School of Rock,” “Rock School” finds Simmons, sans all but his ordinary daily makeup, taking a post at a 450-year-old English prep school in order to transform 10 classically trained young musicians into a fighting rock unit. (Their baptism of fire will be to open for Motorhead!) Like that film, it promises to be a story of transformation and empowerment in which the teacher will himself be taught.

Simmons, who briefly taught sixth grade in Spanish Harlem before rock stardom turned him into a different sort of professor, says he wants to know whether he would have been any good at the job. And notwithstanding his pupils’ initial impressions of him as “arrogant,” “intimidating” and “a bit of a weirdo,” the evidence on screen suggests he would be. He may not know how to behave in a public-radio interview, but he can talk to kids and has a natural sympathy for the misfit and underdog -- rock ‘n’ roll being traditionally a venue in which the last become first. “Rock is about finding who you are,” Mr. Simmons, as he gets to be called, tells his charges. “You don’t necessarily have to play your instrument very well at all. You can just barely get by and you can be in a rock band.”

There are some superfluous bits of exaggerated business: Simmons arrives in a limousine, flanked by blond hotties; deputy headmistress Mary Ireland is set up as a kind of watchful nemesis. But by the standards of the genre, the show is exceptionally genuine, in part because it focuses on kids, and in part because the teacher thoroughly knows and loves his subject. Tonight’s episode ends with the choosing of a lead singer -- appropriately, it is the class outcast, an intense little kid with ginger hair who “speaks Elvish” and sings out of time and out of tune, but with full-body attitude. It’s a killingly sweet moment -- “People are going to say, come, Josh, sit at our table,” he excitedly foresees -- that had me near tears, I don’t mind saying. (Well, I do a bit -- but it did.)

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“Tommy Lee Goes to College,” on the other hand, in which the Motley Crue drummer spends a semester (or so) at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, is almost pure artifice. It also is built upon a movie trope -- it is, essentially, the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield vehicle “Back to School,” in which a rascally old millionaire upsets the groves of academe. You have to wait until the end credits to read that “Some elements have been produced and/or edited for comedy,” but you will have worked that out long before then, from the sound and visual effects, the non-documentary camera placement, and the scene in which a “mobile army of interior decorators” arrive to “pimp” Tommy’s new (off-campus) dorm room. “Now it’s tight,” Tommy tells pleased roomie Matt. “Got the cappuccino machine crackin’, the flatty [that’s a flat-screen TV to you] .... Dude, look at the snazzy alarm clocks.”

Though Tommy declares his intention to “treat this with nothing but respect and love,” and tells his “hot tutor” Natalie “I didn’t come here to just goof around and party,” the fact is that he has come not to study and learn -- he isn’t even enrolled -- but to make a television show. Once you accept “Tommy Lee Goes to College” as merely an old-style campus comedy, it’s entertaining enough, in its lunkheaded, vaguely sexist way.

The star may actually have a brain in his head, but the comedy, in the first couple of episodes at least, is built almost entirely on his lack of aptitude -- horrified confusion is his nearly constant expression. But some sort of triumph surely awaits him at the end (in tonight’s episode he does manage to correctly identify a Turkish filbert in his horticulture class); and, of course, whatever happens here, he can always go back to being plain old Tommy Lee, a well-paying job for which he is uniquely qualified.

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‘Gene Simmons’ Rock School’

Where: VH1

When: 11 tonight

‘Tommy Lee Goes to College’

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When: 10 tonight on VH1

Also: 9 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC


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