“I have no problem with the Hills,” 18-year-old Staci assures on this week’s premiere of BET’s reality series “Baldwin Hills.” “They have a problem with me.”
Like many outsiders -- Staci is the lone female cast member who doesn’t live in the titular neighborhood -- she is a bit defensive and too proud to really admit it, instead passing judgment on the show’s better-heeled girls by feigning disinterest. “Let them do what they do,” she says. “Be bougie.”
If she is meant to be the voice of reason on “Baldwin Hills” (BET, 10 p.m. Tuesdays), she has accepted a fool’s task. Clearly inspired by MTV’s “Laguna Beach,” “Baldwin Hills” follows a handful of teens who live in and around the so-called black Beverly Hills. “Not all black people live in the ghetto,” goes the show’s intro. “This is our ‘hood -- big houses, manicured lawns, amazing vistas.”
Or, put more succinctly by Ashley: “When we go shopping for a party, we do it big.”
The Unusually Entitled Young Person has become a familiar TV trope in recent years, but save for reruns of “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” black teens in this income bracket are largely absent. (Another rare exception is MTV’s routinely glorious “My Super Sweet 16,” which is equal opportunity in its selection and presentation of spoiled young people.)
The innovations of “Baldwin Hills” stop there, though -- these kids are, by and large, just as frivolous as their peers down the 405. They attend parties (thrown by Jordan, one of their own), shop at Christian Audigier (except for Staci, who, natch, shops at Rainbow) and inch tentatively toward romantic mismatches.
But these kids seem particularly conscious of the cameras -- even though they are often placed at a distance, as in “Laguna Beach” -- and their descriptive voice-overs sound stiff and scripted. They’re not wholly at ease, as if they’re still carrying some of the burden of representation of their parents’ generation -- a weight the white kids of “Laguna Hills” never needed to bother themselves with.
Auditioning with Diddy
THERE’S a culture gap too in MTV’s “Making the Band 4,” which started its season last month (Mondays at 10 p.m.) and is focusing on the creation of a male hip-hop/pop vocal group by the increasingly avuncular Sean “Diddy” Combs. But “MTB4" isn’t merely a singing competition -- it’s also a test of social-climbing will. “Some of them are rough around the edges,” says Diddy, with more excitement than condescension. “Some of them need some work vocally, some people need to run on a treadmill, but it’s a start. Not everybody that you see on TV looked like that from the beginning, so bear with me.”
Most contestants are on their way to inventing themselves as the stars they wish to become, wearing swagger as audaciously as their fur coats, shearlings, all-over print hoodies and stern, dark shades.
But these are suits of armor, of course, and this season’s best moment came two weeks ago, when vocal coach Ankh Ra -- older, eternally positive and avoidant of red meat -- took the finalists to task for not conveying enough feeling in their vocals. At least two were reduced to tears before delivering much-improved performances. “That’s your job, to be the vehicle of emotions,” Ankh Ra tells them. “Y’all gotta be open vessels. Y’all sitting on some stuff, and when you sit on it, it stops the flow.... Break on through, your music will be better for it. Your life will be better for it.”
What could come off as self-help treacle instead plays as earnest and supportive. It’s a recurring theme on “MTB4,” which, thanks largely to a calmer Diddy, as well as to the paternal and fraternal relationships being developed between mentors and mentees, is adding a dash of Promise Keepers to its “American Idol.”
In an earlier season of the show, when Diddy was making a different band entirely, he had his proteges walk to Brooklyn from Manhattan to get him cheesecake. In last week’s episode, he upped the challenge -- the cheesecake is one part of a five-borough walk in which the would-be band members have to sing in each one; it takes almost a full day. When Diddy rejoins them at the end of the task, they’re exhausted, chilled to the bone and a bit demoralized.
The cheesecake is, of course, an afterthought -- they’d been carrying it around for more than 12 hours by then -- but Diddy is warm, empowering even. “The ego could be your biggest downfall,” he warns. “A lot of people didn’t try out because they was like, ‘Oh, I don’t wanna get no cheesecake. I don’t wanna be sonned.’ It ain’t about that, man -- it’s about getting the job done, whatever the task is.” With one calmly delivered sermon, he turns a preposterous camera-friendly stunt into a meditation on the Protestant ethic. In this week’s episode, new singers are brought in to compete with those already living in the finalists’ house. “There’s always somebody in life trying to take your spot,” Diddy warns. “There’s always somebody not taking a nap.”
Accordingly, hard work is rewarded here. On the season premiere, Julius, a “church boy” from Quincy, Fla., who works at a Piggly Wiggly, struggled a bit with his audition. “I’m not only singing for me, man,” he says with a deep exhale. “I’m singing for everybody -- my family, my father.... I just go through so much.” And then he launches into a riveting, anguished rendition of the Rev. Paul Jones’ “I Won’t Complain”: “I’ve had some good days / And I’ve had some hills to climb....”
Julius is certainly rough around the edges: He’s country. He’s young. He’s hesitant. And he’s getting stared down by a panel of judges -- successful industry men, mainly, with crisp haircuts, well-moisturized skin, big diamond earrings. And while they’re certainly sussing out whether Julius can sing -- and he can -- they’re also maybe looking for the answer to another question: Could you, at some point, be one of us? How would you look in our neighborhood?