The Starburst Galaxy

“Your name doesn’t mean anything to me, but I’m happy for you that you’re somebody around here.” That is not what I said to popular British television actress Michelle Collins when I met her backstage at the Shaftesbury Theatre in the winter of 2006 (as I mentioned here, in passing). I had been living in Britain for over two years already and still felt like a party-crashing amnesiac among a group of strangers absorbed in a game of Trivial Pursuit, the edition of which appeared to be Mesopotamian. Relocating to another country, however culturally related it may be to the universe you left behind (in my case, the microcosmopolitan hub known as Manhattan), is not unlike the sensation of tuning in to a serial that, unbeknownst to you, has been running for several successful seasons on a cable network to which you have just gotten access. You try your darndest to get into it; yet looking on only leaves you with the impression that the rock you dwelled under is not even the third one from the sun but orbiting another solar system altogether. So you lay down the telescope at last and, unless you meet them in person, give up on identifying the luminaries begot in a galaxy light-years beyond your sphere.

Tonight, the glamorous Ms. Collins returns to UK television to head the cast of Rock Rivals, a new pulp drama set in the world of reality showbusiness, its creative forces, its performers, and its followers. The eight-part series airs on ITV, home of reality programs like The X Factor, the British revamp of American Idol. As with the shows it feeds on, Rock Rivals lets viewers decide who wins the fictional singing contest by choosing one of two possible endings.

Satire or satellite, it is another commentary on the kind of starburst galaxy the entertainment industries insists we inhabit. Starburst galaxies are the kind of systems with a particularly high star-formation rate. Who can keep up with all those newly created celebrities? Sometimes, stars have to fall or catastrophically explode before I take note.

There’s one born every minute—along with the adoring crowd on whom such upgraded gaseousness exerts its gravitational pull. As paradoxical as it might sound, that is probably why I leap at the chance of catching a star in the process of being formed. Presently, the only satellite-dished up treat I take in is American Idol, to which I keep coming back for another helping until David Archuleta is being unaccountably voted off by folks who wouldn’t recognize a rising sun if it hit them in the solar plexus.

Watching reality television has its comforts. It gives you the impression—or should that be “creates the illusion”?—that you are no mere stargazer but a starmaker with powers equal to the vast industry whose well-oiled if by now antiquated machinery is working against time, odds, and YouTube to produce the kind of temporary radiance that passes for stellar. The aging medium turns them out fast for a reason: with all those puffed up somebodies insisting on making stars or asses of themselves, the gas in this galaxy is just about used up.

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