As a casual reality show viewer, I tend to gravitate towards shows like Top Chef about people who are deeply passionate about their craft. That soupcon of substance makes all the manufactured drama and clumsily integrated plugs for the Glad family of products a lot more excusable. I was nevertheless perversely fascinated by an E! show called Sunset Tan precisely because it lacked even the faintest hint of substance. Seriously, how fucking hard can it be to work at a tanning salon? Like the wonderfully titled, strangely wonderful I Love Money, there's something weirdly pure about the unabashed trashiness of Sunset Tan. It never professes to be anything other than television junk food.
Part of my fascination is personal. I used to pass a Sunset Tan salon every time I traveled from the Sportsmen's Lodge, my home away from home in fabulous Culver City, California, to HDTV Studios, where I'd tape my poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic cable movie review panel show, Movie Club With John Ridley. The name "Sunset Tan" seemed to have emerged whole-cloth from an eighties teen sex comedy, something that would star, I dunno, Phyllis Diller, Vic Tayback and two or three Playboy bunnies.
Boy, was I ever wrong. If Sunset Tan were the subject of a teen sex comedy, would a bosomy, evil manager decide that the best way to boost employee morale is a bikini calendar showcasing the salon's scantily clad employees? Similarly, if the boss was in Las Vegas on business, would a curvaceous, silicone-enhanced dumb-and-dumber pair of ditzes collectively known as "The Olly Girls" use his house to host a wild, out-of-control party with close personal friend Pauly Shore? Lastly, and leastly, would the salon owners throw a "Miss Sunset Tan" beauty pageant to find the perfect skank to represent their line of tanning salons, and would the Olly Girls try to crash the pageant in a desperate bid to score the prize money themselves?
All of the above developments happen in Sunset Tan. Yet I can't imagine any of them happening in a cheesy eighties sex comedy. Especially the parts about the bikini calendar and Pauly Shore dropping by to throw a wacky party. Clearly I had misunderestimated the show and the sober, substantive business of providing fake tans to starlets and wannabes. Sunset Tan focuses on the sexed-up shenanigans at the titular chain of tanning salons. The hero, pretty much by default, is Erin, a Christian Oklahoma transplant who is as grounded and down-to-earth as anyone with skin the color of Cheetos can possibly be. Her nemesis-turned-friend is Janelle, an evil succubus who looks like an oranger, creepier human version of Janice from The Muppet Show.
Then there are The Olly Girls, a blonde and blonder double act who blur the line separating "lovably ditzy" from "mentally challenged" and Nick, an intense young man who takes working at a tanning salon way too seriously. Late in the season Nick clashes with Heidi, a twenty-something who accepts a job as his assistant manager despite owning a successful tanning salon in Reno. Heidi mentions this fact roughly every fifteen seconds. I can easily imagine her ordering a Jamba Juice by boasting, "Now as the owner of a successful tanning salon, I would like the Raspberry Surprise, and as a successful businesswoman, I would also like a protein boost. Did I mention that I own a successful tanning salon in Reno? Cause I do."
In the first episode, a hideous stage mother takes her twelve-year-old daughter to get tanned for her school pictures. Ever the salesman, Nick pressures her into getting the twelve hundred dollar "Lindsey Lohan" package. "Don't you want to look like Lindsey Lohan?" she brays at her unfortunate offspring. Christ, for twelve-hundred dollars the Lindsey Lohan package should include fake tits and a wasted rock star girl/boyfriend of her choice. It somehow seems both wrong and right that a tanning package for a twelve year old costs more than my entire wardrobe. When the sad little girl complains that she doesn't want a tan, her horrible, horrible mother hisses, "You need this tan. For your school pictures." If that isn't technically considered child abuse, it should be.
I doubted Sunset Tan's viability as a reality show but it has all the prerequisites for that most sordid of genres. They are, in order: 1. Sex 2. Competition 3. Horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people 4. Third-rate celebrities 5. Outsized personalities unencumbered by dignity, shame or self-respect
The competition comes in the form of a fierce struggle to determine who gets to manage Sunset Tan's new Las Vegas outlet. Oh, but the competition is fierce! And the celebrities! Why, if you've climbed to the very pinnacle of show-biz superstardom, you sure as hell aren't going to be on Sunset Tan. If you were once mildly famous for being married to a C or D-lister, on the other hand, the show is right up your alley. Consequently, Sunset Tan boasts appearances from such semi-quasi-sorta-stars as Jose Canseco's skanky ex-wife, Ian Ziering's skanky ex-wife, Lorenzo Lamas' skanky ex-wife, Jenna Jameson and Chris Kattan, not to mention Kato Kaetlin (who appears on multiple episodes and hosts the Sunset Tan beauty pageant) and the aforementioned Pauly Shore. In a shocking coincidence, Chelsea Handler, star of E!'s Chelsea Lately, shows up to make lame jokes about how she thought a tanning cocktail should involve booze. I know only four things about Handler. They are, in order: 1. She has boobs 2. She likes to drink 3. Did I mention the boobs? 4. How about the drinking?
Handler's appearance on E!'sSunset Tan made me think that's all I need to know about her. To be fair, Britney Spears appears in the first episode, but after that the celeb factor falls off dramatically. These pseudo-celebs are only a quick step up, fame-wise, from Tijuana donkey show performers. Nevertheless, Sunset Tan can be guiltily addictive. There's something strangely fascinating about watching the Machiavellian machinations of adults with the creepy perma-tans and bodies of porn stars and the minds of stunted, bratty eight year olds. Here's the really frightening part: the show was renewed. I can only imagine the Shakespearian heights the show will climb in its second and hopefully final season.