My Life on the D-List gets more entertaining thanks to Kathy Griffin’s contrived encounters with celebs

Usually, I’d rip a reality show–particularly a docudrama that purports to document a person’s life–for getting more contrived. But in the case of Bravo’s Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, contrived set-up encounters with celebrities has actually made the show a lot better and a lot funnier in its fifth season.

The series has always worked because Kathy is so funny, and thus even when she’s doing a bit or acting, it works because she’s a fantastic comedian. But since her divorce from Matt, the show has been increasingly relying on annoyingly set-up situations rather than following her real life. Last season, for example, had far too many of those grating segments when Kathy called her staff together so she could announce something to them that they had either planned or clearly already knew about, and she’d try to riff on it but it wouldn’t quite work, nor would Tiffany and Jessica’s fake laughing.

A lot of docudramas are shot this way now, though: Producers schedule a time and place and event for the cast and cameras to show up, and film the results. That’s why all of the Real Housewives who aren’t actually friends magically appear in the same places over and over again. This can work if the situation allows them to really interact organically, but it works even better if it’s a situation they would have been in anyway.

The set-up celebrity encounters that sounded formulaic when Kathy first announced them go in the opposite direction, because it’s clear that Kathy is only meeting with them for the show–never mind that at least one was an excuse for product placement (the casino where she hung out with Lily Tomlin and interacted with the funny manager was listed in the promotional consideration section of the credits).

But the results have been fantastic, and more realistic than what last season gave us. Even though the situation is totally contrived, the interaction between Kathy and the celebrity guest is real, and we’ve laughed and learned a lot, from Bette Midler’s ego and bitchy responses to Lily Tomlin’s pure awesomeness. Most of the credit goes to Kathy’s abilities as an improv comedian, but also to her celebrity guests, whose ability–or inability–to play off of Kathy make for great TV.

Although Kathy Griffin plus Maggie Griffin plus Betty White equals a television orgasm, especially for Kathy’s beloved gays, their interaction wasn’t as hysterical as I expected, and that’s okay, because it seemed genuine and still had plenty of funny moments. And hell, Golden Girl Betty White went to eat at Sizzler, which is great, and she had some flawless lines, like when she told the camera: “Kathy, bless her dear heart, can bastardize almost anything with her naughty words, but I rise above that shit.”

Even Kathy’s time with Paris Hilton was okay, mostly because she ridiculed Paris without Paris realizing it. Still, Kathy’s overnight stay at Paula Deen’s house reigns supreme for me this season, as Paula was thoroughly amazing: willing to both take crap and dish it out, and even rise/fall to Kathy’s risque level. And her sons and assistant were great, too.

Meanwhile, Kathy’s mom Maggie remains the emotional center of the show, even when she’s clearly unnerved by the fakeness of the set-up situations. Watching her talk about Don Rickles’ similarity to her husband was touching–and the editors handled it perfectly, putting frosting on that warm chocolate chip cookie by ending the episode with Don Rickles being a grumpy bastard, and the pairing of those two scenes worked better than it sounds like it should have–sort of like this entire season.

My Life on the D-List, season five: A

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.