Watching Paris Hilton turn up her perfect nose at small-town America is a drab business indeed. Watching William Shatner punk a small population of hayseed Iowans is a little easier on the sensibilities. After all, Shatner, the bloated overactor best known as Captain Kirk from ''Star Trek," has built a career out of self-mockery, and not wealth and entitlement. No one exploits Shatner's cheesiness and . . . overwrought . . . acting . . . delivery . . . more than Shatner himself. He's earned his ribbing rights.
Still, ''Invasion Iowa," Shatner's new prank reality show on Spike TV, made me more uncomfortable than not. The four-part series, which premieres tonight at 9, and airs each night this week, dupes the farm town of Riverside, Iowa, into believing it is the filming location of Shatner's new sci-fi movie. Riverside has long identified itself as the future birthplace of the fictional Captain Kirk, and so its citizens are thrilled to have Shatner and his crew filming on site. Dazzled, the locals work on the shoot and play key roles in the movie. What they don't know is that it's all a ruse for a reality TV show, that Shatner and his entourage are there simply to reveal just how pathetic and hungry for fame Riverside (pop. 928) truly is.
From the producers of ''Joe Schmo," this one could be called ''Town Schmo." Those locals who fancy themselves to be actors undergo humiliating auditions, and the worst of them are cast in the movie. Then they are led to believe they are talented, and that they could actually become Hollywood stars.
Bad acting by real actors can be funny; ''Waiting for Guffman" captured the bittersweet humor of a town seduced into having big Hollywood dreams. But bad acting by unaware real people has an edge of creepiness to it. What will happen to Iowan Brooke Lemke when she realizes just how awful she truly is in the faux movie -- and that the Spike audience is laughing at her? Maybe I'm too touchy-feely, but I found myself cringing for her during the oft-repeated movie scene in which she tells Shatner's character she'll ''carry [his] seed."
Shatner and his troupe of fake moviemakers also enact other ruses on the town, such as when they hold a speaker-phone call with a faux Sean Connery, or when they introduce Shatner's new headgear product line, called ''Shats." We get to see Riverside people wearing silly berets of primary colors as if they're truly attractive. In the second episode of ''Invasion Iowa," one of the local actors, Bill Blank, finally catches on to the possibility that the movie and its crew may be a hoax. The show's producers quickly ''disappear" him.
At some points, we're meant to think that the Riverside locals deserve to be fooled, simply because they're so smitten with the promise of fame. But mostly, we're meant to think that Shatner is actually quite fond of the people he's making fun of. He seems to like them, even as he baits them. Ultimately, when the show wraps on Friday, which happens to be April Fool's Day, we will find out just how Riverside feels about having been used by Shatner. Everybody plays the fool sometimes, but not always on national TV.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.