Welcome to her world: ‘Mariah’s World’ offers lots of glitter but little depth
There’s no real reason any of us should feel sorry for Mariah Carey, a singer-songwriter who’s sold roughly as many albums as there are people in Brazil.
And yet it’s hard to walk away from an episode of “Mariah’s World” without the distinct sense that, after a quarter-century in the limelight, the famously gifted artist is fighting to maintain relevance in a shifting cultural landscape.
Premiering Sunday on E!, the eight-episode reality show – excuse me, documentary series – follows Carey as she embarks on her first European tour in a decade and plans her (subsequently canceled) wedding to billionaire James Packer.
What with Beyoncé, Rihanna, Adele, Jennifer Lopez, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga the marketplace for pop divas is pretty saturated these days. And even though she broke new ground as a female artist in the ‘90s, lately Carey has tended to follow in the footsteps of other performers.
She replaced Lopez, with whom she shares a penchant for flesh-colored, bedazzled stage-wear, on “American Idol,” only to clash toxically with fellow judge Nicki Minaj and leave after a single season.
And now she’s become the latest musician to appear in a self-promotional documentary, a tradition that can be traced back to “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” the black-and-white 1991 film that provided a then-rare glimpse into the life of a superstar. More recently, Beyoncé directed the tightly controlled autobiographical 2013 film, “Life Is but a Dream,” which was about as revealing as a hazmat suit, (especially compared to this year’s raw, personal-visual album, “Lemonade.”)
The self-exposé has become yet another obligatory milestone in the pop-chanteuse career, along with the triumphant comeback album, the messy divorce and the rebound relationship with a backup dancer.
One can understand why Carey speaks about making the series with an air of inevitability in “Mariah’s World,” claiming she “never wanted to do this documentary in my life, in terms of being followed constantly by cameras.”
Not that “Mariah’s World” is exactly cinéma vérité. It isn’t even “Truth or Dare.” Instead, much of the series, which comes from the reality-TV factory Bunim-Murray Productions (“Real World,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”), will be familiar to anyone who’s gobbled up a season or 12 of the “Real Housewives” franchise (guilty as charged). Rather than providing insight into what makes Carey unique as a musician or an individual, “Mariah’s World” has taken a distinctive, hugely famous subject and recast her as merely another high-maintenance, drama-prone, conspicuously consuming reality star.
In a performance every bit as choreographed as one of her concerts, Carey plays up her diva image relentlessly. One moment she’s plunging from her yacht into the waters off Capri, Italy, while wearing an evening gown and a string of diamonds, the next she’s recalling the time Oprah told her “don’t let anyone think you don’t know how to put your shoes on anymore” as four different people help her into a pair of torturous stilettos.
There are lingering closeups of Carey’s meatball-sized diamond rings, “Cribs”-like montages of her lavish yacht and interviews in which the lingerie-clad singer perches, goddess-style, on a chaise longue.
If “Mariah’s World” is to be believed — and we should probably take it all with a bucket of salt — Carey is a wildly impractical person determined to live like the Queen of Sheba at all times, budgets and podiatric health be damned.
The series is an attempt at image-making that’s self-conscious yet totally devoid of irony — camp without the wink. The series provides “insight into a world people might not see,” Carey gushes in the opening sequence, and while that may technically be true, the series feels more than a bit stale.
There is the usual assortment of sycophantic handlers and sidekicks, including Molly, a sweet but in-over-her-head assistant who breaks into tears because she can’t figure out how to set up “Miss MC’s” Apple TV, and a flashy, “bad cop” manager named Stella Bulochnikov who tells Molly she’s not allowed to have a boyfriend during her first year on the job. (Let’s hope no one at the EEOC is watching.)
Seasoned viewers of reality television can detect a canned story line from a mile away, and much of the drama in “Mariah’s World” feels simultaneously over-produced and under cooked. In one subplot, Carey works to overcome her fear of being carried onstage in a chaise longue by her chiseled dancers. (We all have our crosses to bear.)
We hear repeatedly about the “high stakes” of Carey’s upcoming tour, how she’s “putting her reputation on the line,” and so on. No doubt the tour is a huge undertaking, but Carey’s been around for 25 years and staged similar tours before. This ain’t her first time at the rodeo.
The portrayal of her turbulent romantic life also seems — at best — evasive. After consulting with Bulochnikov, Carey apparently decides to postpone her wedding until after the tour, breaking the news to Packer in a cellphone call (or so we’re meant to believe; Carey just stands there, iPhone pressed to her ear, looking sad). Elsewhere, she flirts conspicuously with backup dancer Bryan Tanaka — now rumored to be her boyfriend.
That’s not to say Carey comes off badly. She’s obviously driven and hard-working, even if the show puts a bit too fine a point on this aspect of her personality. (We get it, she’s tireless.) In a brief flash of relatability, she coos sincerely about her adorable twins and the joys of motherhood. And the premiere features a few appearances from Bianca Storm, Carey’s sinister alter-ego, recognizable by her dark hair and terrible British accent, suggesting the singer has an appealing goofy streak.
For fans of reality TV about preening, self-involved rich women and their hangers-on “Mariah’s World” will provide a perfectly satisfying scoop of empty entertainment calories. But the series is unlikely to complicate or deepen Carey’s image in any meaningful way or truly expose her vulnerabilities.
And that’s unfortunate, because Carey has shown a capacity for humility and depth as an artist, perhaps less in her infectious music than in films like “Precious” and “The Butler.” Carey may not be acting in “Mariah’s World,” but she’s still putting on a show, and not a terribly interesting one at that. Maybe what she really needs is a documentary series directed by Lee Daniels.
Now that I’d watch.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Follow me @MeredithBlake