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Family feuds: the triumph of hope over reality TV

LOS ANGELES — Think about your last fight with a loved one. Remember the name-calling, the smoke blowing out your nostrils, the deluge of tears? Now imagine the ugly scene being witnessed by millions of strangers, reveling at your breakdown.

It would be your worst nightmare — unless you're a second-tier star desperate for screen time. Despite the fact that a number of celebrity couples have seen their relationships fall apart onscreen — Hulk & Linda, Britney & Kevin, Jessica & Nick — there remains a long line of dearly beloveds signing up for their own reality shows.

The latest: Fox Reality Channel's "Househusbands of Hollywood," featuring a pack of semi-stars in role-reversal marriages, and Style Network's "Giuliana & Bill," which will answer whether or not an E! anchor and an "Apprentice" winner can find true happiness.

Then there's "The Lamas Life," coming to E! in October.

While it's not about a loving couple — Lorenzo Lamas had four marriages fall apart without the aid of cameras — it does feature two battling ex-wives and a father-son estrangement that stems from them both sleeping with the same woman.

Predictably, all the participants swear that reality TV can do no damage. Quite the contrary, according to Billy Ashley, a former pro baseball player in "Househusbands" who manages the home while his wife, Lisa Ashley, works as a celebrity makeup artist.

"I think it's helped our marriage, if anything," Ashley said. "I'm not one that openly talks about stuff, but for the show's interview portions, people ask you questions and different emotions come out. It was kind of nice to get a little bit off my chest, and by the end, I think we got to know each other more."

Giuliana Rancic — someone who has no problem expressing her feelings, especially if the subject is celebrity gossip — said she and her newlywed husband, Bill Rancic, benefited in other ways.

"You go in thinking you're the perfect wife and he thinks he's the perfect husband, and then you watch a scene and go, 'God, I cut him off all the time,'" she said. "I'm trying now not to cut him off because I'm watching and I go, 'I am so annoying. I am like the most annoying person.'"

Despite the life lesson, Rancic admitted that they had reservations about opening up their lives for TV and even considered pulling the plug after a few days.

"We watched the first episode and I said, 'You said that about me?' And he said, 'You said that about me?'" she recalled. "It was tough. But I make a living off of interviewing the celebrities and getting personal things about them. If I can't do the same thing and let viewers see my life, then I'd be a hypocrite."

The bickering over house furnishings and refrigerator leftovers on those two shows is mild drama compared with the back story of "The Lamas Life." Lorenzo Lamas, star of the 1980s prime-time soap "Falcon Crest," had barely spoken to his son A.J. since finding out that his then-wife had slept with the younger Lamas when he was 18. But the show has forced the two to spend time together. Lamas said he has no problems letting his real-life drama serve as fodder for a TV show.

"I think it's a reflection of the society that we're living in," he said. "There are so many cameras. There is so much instant media attention, not just for celebrities, but for normal people that get thrust in the reality world. Honestly, I'm looking at it as an opportunity to get closer to two of my kids who I never really got a chance to see much of when they were younger because I was working so much, and we have a relationship that could stand to be better."

So which of the three shows has the most potential to be a hit? Clearly, it's "The Lamas Life," not only because it's on the most available cable channel of the three, but also because it has genuine tension. By comparison, "Househusbands" and "Giuliana" look as mannered as "Ozzie & Harriet." In terms of ratings, that won't even get you a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

The recent proof of our decadent desires: TLC's "Jon and Kate Plus Eight," a modest success when it debuted as a story about a loving couple with a big brood, has become a monster hit now that the two are barely speaking to each other. Ratings skyrocketed after rumors of infidelity hit the tabloids, and interest remains high as cameras capture all the nuances of what is almost certain to be a nasty divorce.

"The big shows are still the ones that give you the high-octane drama and I don't think that's ever going to change," said Mike Fleiss, creator of "The Bachelor," "The Cougar" and other guilty pleasures. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a train wreck, but some sort of bumping is good because you need conflict in all storytelling. That applies to reality, too."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.