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A Stan Lee reality: He'shumorless

In ``Who Wants to Be a Superhero?" host Stan Lee , co-creator of Spider-Man and The Hulk , talks to his reality players strictly via screen. Like Big Brother, the comic-book icon hovers on TVs everywhere, charming his live-action superhero wannabes when he's not scrutinizing their behavior. ``Have a seat," he says graciously from a dining room TV at one point. ``Let's all enjoy a meal together." But he also attacks: ``Stop smiling!" he yells at a giggling guy who wears goggles. ``This really is very serious."

Forgive me for disagreeing with you , Stan Lee TV, the great and powerful Oz-bot, but this really shouldn't be very serious. We're talking about a room of men and women stuffed into spandex tights and armed with fake guns, whips, and, in the case of the bully-bashing Fat Momma, some all-powerful donuts. The last thing we want to do is take ``Who Wants to Be a Superhero?" very seriously when it premieres on Sci Fi tonight at 10. The show is a joke, a bad joke that goes on too long, and it should be treated as such.

Like ``icons " from Martha Stewart to Sylvester Stallone, Lee is trying to be the next Donald Trump with this show, right down to the exaggerated, wooden delivery. In his version of ``The Apprentice," Lee wants to choose one of his 11 contestants to be the subject of both a comic book and a Sci Fi movie. Over the next six weeks, the 83-year-old will put his charges through challenges meant to test their superhero mettle. Tonight's test: Will they stop to help a girl crying for her mother during their race to a finish line?

Among the people/actors on the show are the tree-climbing Monkey Woman and Cell Phone Girl, whose equipment can scan, magnify, and download any information necessary. Also in the competition: Major Victory, played by a former exotic dancer, and The Iron Enforcer, who has two weapons named ``Judgment" and ``Mercy." Most of the people playing these self-made characters seem to have a sense of humor despite Lee's humorlessness, but I do worry about the software engineer whose alter ego is Feedback, a vi-deogame savant. The guy might be a little too invested in this contest. The tights come off at night, I hope.

One of the biggest problems with ``Who Wants to Be a Superhero?" as a competition is the elimination process. Lee plays judge and jury on the show, and so he kicks off contestants based on standards that are never quite clear. He provides reasons for his selections (two are axed tonight), but they are feeble and obviously based on whim. Now that's not a very serious approach to a very serious contest, is it?

After ``Who Wants to Be a Superhero?" Sci Fi is premiering at 10 p.m. another odd series called ``Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" that's a little more worthwhile. The idea in this British import is that a writer-producer-director-actor named Garth Marenghi (Matthew Holness ) created a horror series back in the 1980s that was banned because of its shocking power. Now, we finally get to see clips from that show, as well as present-tense interviews about its ground-breaking significance with Marenghi and his co producer.

The big joke is that the show is an Ed Wood-like production that is laughably bad. The sets are shoddy, the acting is silly, and the audio doesn't always match the video. In tonight's episode, hell breaks loose at Darkplace hospital, but you'll probably be too distracted by the nurse's bad wig to notice. And Marenghi -- ``your humble fabulist," as he calls himself -- is a bloated boob.

``Garth Marenghi's Dark place" is amusing for about 15 minutes, before it becomes tedious. It's just a tad better than a ``Saturday Night Live" skit. One episode could make a funny little Internet short, but the premise is not big enough to fill a series. It would be baggy even in spandex tights.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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