Screen: NatGeo

Cult Jams

NatGeo's Hasselhoff vs. The Berlin Wall and ID's Heartbreakers use '80s stars so cleverly, Sarah hopes it's only the beginning of a rad-surgence.

I would never watch a special program entitled merely Versus The Berlin Wall. It's not something I'd hate; I've got nothing in particular against the topic; it's just the sort of waiting-room show I'd never seek out unless the network behind it decided to pair it with a guy who's huge in Germany and spent four seasons driving a talking car. Fortunately, NatGeo did exactly that, and Hasselhoff Versus The Berlin Wall is a solid hour of TV -- and not just because of the flashback footage to the Hoff's Brandenburg Gate concert, during which he sang his utterly colorless anthem, "Looking For Freedom," while wearing a Mary-Cherry-style light-up leather jacket. (He still owns it and can juuuust fit into it. Pity he paired it with a piano-key scarf, but: the Hoff, what are you going to do.)

That fresh approach to Hass-tory (…sorry) (not sorry) is so smart on NatGeo's part, because Hasselhoff does have a legit connection to Germany, regardless of the sport we stateside commentators have made of it over the years. Not only does he genuinely care about the subject, but he's well-liked by the citizenry, and his involvement in a history of the fortification of that notorious barrier -- and of the most infamous attempts to circumvent it, including tunneling, zip lines, and a daring homemade-aircraft plot involving three brothers -- will in turn inspire the real-life players to share their stories. And what amazing stories, seriously. As I said, I would pass right over it in the channel listings, unseeing, sans the Hoff, but I also love a good prison-break- or heist-type story, and HVTBW is nothing but, so the Hoff probably pulled in a bunch of other ironic watchers like myself. Not for nothing, but even if he'd only participated via portentous VO, the Hoff is serving ominous-narration realness: "East Germany was now. A prison."

Scribbling a list of other too-grandfatherish-even-for-Great-Uncle-Buntsy specials David Hasselhoff might host that I would watch then and only then -- multi-part histories of Panzer divisions; tours of breweries; Kaiser Wilhelm: A Man And His Sonnets -- I realized that NatGeo isn't the only channel taking advantage of under-employed Baywatch-ers and other celebs of a bygone decade to create super-watchable entertainment that stands on its own. Investigation Discovery's Heartbreakers is leaning hard on the kitschy casting -- Jack Wagner; Rob Estes -- and you come for a look at the soap stars of old you used to crush on, but you stay because it's a fun new take on the same old true-crime stories. (With the occasional Easter egg, a la Judd Nelson playing a bigamist nutjob in last week's ep. In a scene set at a storage space, where he and estranged onscreen wife Nicole Eggert are divvying up their marital property, Nelson's character sniffs that she can take all the Billy Joel albums -- a nod to Nelson's Alec in St. Elmo's Fire, informing Ally Sheedy's Leslie in the infamous "WASTED LOVE!!" scene that she can take all the Billy Joels "except The Stranger.")

ID is at an interesting branding juncture, because much of their programming occupies the "the parody of the thing is the same as the thing" space (Southern Fried Homicide, Secret Lives Of Stepford Wives), but the channel seems to have begun shifting to a more self-aware take on its own reputation. The genre has a bunch of lanes -- serious takes on crime and punishment, like Herzog's Into The Abyss; bulk pulp like Sins & Secrets; wink-wink stuff like Heartbreakers -- and with the latter, ID seems to have declared its intention to occupy all of them instead of picking one. I don't know if that works long-term, especially since Lifetime and LMN have now gotten in on the adaptation-of-Ann-Rule joke and starting casting Rob Lowe in everything, and ID may have to fight for territory…but Heartbreakers itself totally works. This isn't the kind of material that calls for subtlety, but even if it were, compared to the dreadful re-enacting you usually get in these programs (The Unsolved Mysteries Flashback Players graduated exactly one guy you've ever heard of: Matthew McConaughey. Well, two if you count my husband) (…right?! …Hee. Good ol' Detective #2), Kevin Sorbo as a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing PI haunted by his client's demise is straight out of the Old Vic.

Sure, from the networks' standpoints, the casting of the Hoff, Frisco, et al. is likely a cynical gimmick to get otherwise-resistant viewers in the door and nothing more. But you can't really argue with the logic -- no way do I watch Surviving Evil unless Charisma Carpenter is hosting, but she does, so I do. And as it turns out, you can't argue with the results either. The programming featuring "vintage" stars with relevant cred is pretty good, and I hope other non-fiction programming execs take note. Amanda "Meghan Rotundi" Foreman or Amber "Tara" Benson hosting a miniseries on the Salem witch trials; 21 Jump Street's Peter DeLuise on undercover cops; Christine "Moose" McGlade doing interstitials on a sketch-comedy retrospective. It's not a bad idea on paper to get old-school stars involved in non-fiction shows in some way, and recent projects prove that on-point execution is totally doable.

So if you want this guy to watch a history of the Gibson guitar on Ovation, you know what you have to do. And it rhymes with "Michael Damian."

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