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LIFE IN THE POP LANE

It's a very Brady comeback for Knight

A half-decade into the 21st century, there's simply no logical reason why anyone anywhere should be talking about a former child star whose career peaked during the Nixon administration.

Having said that, we need to talk about Christopher Knight -- that's Peter Brady, the goofy middle son on "The Brady Bunch," now the Hot Boy of reality TV.

On VH1's "The Surreal Life," which features celebrity has-beens desperate to resuscitate their dormant careers, Knight has emerged as a most unlikely sex symbol. Since the first episode last month when he appeared shirtless, revealing a surprisingly buff bod complete with six-pack abs (OK, so he might have been flexing just a bit), Knight has been the subject of feverish Internet chat room crushes -- by women and men.

In fact, Knight is drawing even more attention than fellow "Surreal" housemate Marcus Schenkenberg, a professional torso, or as he prefers to describe himself "the first male supermodel." Clearly, the years have been good to Knight. At 47, he's toned, handsome, and looks like a grown-up version of the toothy kid who once walked around saying "pork chops and applesauce" and pretending to be Humphrey Bogart on a "Brady" episode.

He's also the most sane member on this fourth installment of "The Surreal Life," which includes Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's, Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer, rapper Da Brat, former wrestler Joanie "Chyna" Laurer, and Adrianne Curry, the winner of the first "America's Next Top Model." Of course, that isn't saying much on a show where a very inebriated, very naked Troyer mistook a corner of the workout room for a urinal.

As his other housemates, especially Curry and Laurer, make drunken fools of themselves each week, Knight is always counseling everyone that it's OK if they don't want to "perform" for the cameras. On the show, Knight just seems to go about his business, and as the oldest member of the household, he's become the de facto dad.

For everyone, that is, except Curry. The 22-year-old has developed a huge crush on Knight, leading her to do such embarrassing things as performing a pole dance for him at a seedy strip club. (Then again, it must have worked, since the two have been dating since the show finished taping last November. Don't be surprised if VH1 squeezes another show out of this, a la Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen on "Strange Love.")

Among the castmates, Knight is farthest removed from the height of his fame, which pretty much eclipsed after "The Brady Bunch," which ran for five seasons, was canceled in 1974. After several misbegotten "Brady" variety shows and maudlin reunion movies, Knight retreated into the obscurity of normal life. Twice divorced, he has mainly worked in the high-tech industry.

Now Knight is back in the spotlight, and unlike so many other former child stars, he didn't have to get arrested to do it.

His defined physique aside, his normalcy is also a big part of Knight's appeal. At a time when Michael Jackson, whose career took off a few months after we first met the Bradys, is facing child molestation charges, Knight is neither a mess nor a tragedy. We're far more accustomed to child stars becoming troubled adults, overwhelmed by fame, then betrayed by its fickle nature. If Knight has wrestled with such issues and professional disappointments, the strain certainly doesn't show. Neither broken nor bitter, he seems to approach "The Surreal Life" more as a lark than as a means to reignite his acting career.

In his 1992 memoir, "Growing Up Brady," Barry Williams, who played eldest son Greg, recalled Knight's don't-care attitude regarding his curly mop of hair while they were shooting the series. Wrote Williams, "I used to bust Chris about that a lot, but I think deep down I really envied his comfortable self-image." Knight still seems to possess that enviable insouciance, which is even more attractive than him without his shirt. (Some chat-room denizens may disagree.)

As an original "Brady Bunch" fan -- I first discovered the sitcom during its initial run, not in its eternal syndication afterlife -- I've always had a soft spot in my heart for that show. For all its milquetoast story lines, here was a series that dealt with blended families, and did more to help us understand the cultural and familial ramifications of birth order than any well-funded study.

Through its canned laughter "The Brady Bunch" always tried to impart gentle life lessons, and to a certain extent, that's exactly what Knight is still doing on "The Surreal Life." He's thwarting the convention that to be a reality TV star one has to become a camera-hogging jerk. And at the same time, he's quietly teaching us something about making peace with the past, and getting older with grace, humor, and killer abs.

Renée Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays. She can be reached at graham@globe.com.

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