The fathers whose fanatically worshipful faces pop up, sweaty and tearful, on ''American Idol.'' The moms who move their kids from Oklahoma to L.A. because Junior won a modeling contest. Whenever I encounter these behind-the-child-star scenarios, I marvel: Who are these grown-ups? Bravo's docuseries Showbiz Moms & Dads answers that question with its cutting scrutiny of five fame-hunting families.
''Showbiz'' is the brainchild of exec producers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who've long been fascinated with the nastiness swirling beneath glamorous surfaces -- the two directed both ''Party Monster'' and the fabulously uncomfortable documentary ''The Eyes of Tammy Faye.'' The wannabes here aren't murderous club kids or weepy televangelists, but their lives offer just as much high drama -- perhaps more so, because they're such desperate, indignant outsiders. Thus we have Tiffany Barron, a frazzled doormat whose life hinges on helping her daughter Jordan, 14, become the next...miserable, bitchy starlet. The kid's ''Willy Wonka''-style entitlement (''When people see me on camera...I want them to wait for the credits just to find out my name'') makes me wish her a mediocre career in dinner theater -- with Mom forced to watch every string-bean-strewn performance.
Also thankfully shredded is the much-recycled myth that the whole acting/singing/pimping-out-your-child thing is just for fun. Pageant mom Debbie Tye tells the camera that sure, she spray-tans her 4-year-old daughter Emily against her will, but between the modeling and mincing, ''we let her be a little girl.'' Cut to her snapping ''Don't bounce!'' lest Emily muss her curls. (Great stuff, but for a deeper look at JonBenet-ry, rent Jane Treays' documentary ''Painted Babies.'')
Obviously, ''Showbiz'' isn't above snarky potshots, but it balances the freakery (the seven Nutter kids, who've been jammed into a teensy New York City apartment so they -- and, more notably, their father, Duncan -- can act) with some sweeter moments (Kimberly Moseley-Stephens and her daughter, Jordan, salsa dancing in a dark parking lot after Jordan's appearance on ''That's So Raven''). Even more intriguing is the phenomenon these character studies reveal. In a wildly kid-centric, kid-product-packed world, where parents can buy love ad nauseam, ''Showbiz'''s moms and dads boast the ultimate investment strategy: Acting, singing, and modeling lessons; agents and managers; $10,000 or more a year in coaching and cajoling -- these are simply more accessories for already coddled babes. And what's the ultimate bauble for clingy parents with no life of their own and lots to prove? A shiny little star, of course.