As the whole world knows by now, the relationship between Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston carries the kind of baggage that could never fit into an overhead compartment.

Year after year these two stagger back into the headlines, what with her repeat rehab attempts and his arrests, court appearances and prison stretches. So when the new Bravo reality series

Being Bobby Brown — Thursdays at 10 pm/ET — was first announced earlier this year, it was easy to assume that we'd be getting a highly controlled exercise in image repair, with Bobby and Whitney trying to look as harmless as Ozzy and Sharon or Nick and Jessica.

The assumption was wrong. This jittery, reckless probe into the lives of urban-music royalty is the rawest "celeb reality" show yet. From their first moments on screen, it's clear that neither Bobby, 36, nor Whitney, 41, is particularly concerned about how they come across to the viewing audience. He is brattish and attention-starved, an agglomeration of shifting moods and strange tics. She is equally unpredictable, with a tendency to drift off into her own world, randomly cackling at some private joke. The two seem to trade roles with casual ease, one partner remaining easygoing while the other spontaneously freaks out, and sometimes it gets a little rough. "Bobby, I would knock the s--- out of you at the table," Whitney threatens over dinner, morphing in an instant from a sweet suburban princess to a vicious streetwise tough.

But erratic outbursts are matched by countless moments of goofball sweetness and warm affection between the King of R&B (Whitney's term for her hubby) and his damaged-diva wife, like the bizarre scene in which they spontaneously rap and dance together while shopping for sunglasses. Self-editing is minimal: Right out of the blue, Bobby asks Whitney, "Do you think I can impregnate you tonight?" And she tells him in graphic detail over lunch about the benefits of high colonics; when she refuses to desist, he threatens to vacate his bowels right there on the table. They're so loopy they could easily fill the void left by the delinquent Season 3 of Chappelle's Show.

When Bobby's older brother (and manager) Tommy and TV producer Tracey Baker-Simmons came up with the idea of pitching a reality show about Bobby's life to the networks, the singer saw it as an opportunity to give his public image a much-needed makeover. "I think people will be pleasantly surprised," Bobby says, calling from his home in Alpharetta, Ga. "It'll give folks the chance to see that I'm human — that I'm not a monster. It gives you a whole look at me, instead of seeing me in handcuffs, coming out of a courtroom."

As it happens, the first episode of Being Bobby Brown shows Bobby appearing in an Atlanta courtroom on charges (ultimately dropped) of assaulting his wife. "I'm not a bad guy," Bobby whispers to the camera. "I like guns... but call me a collector."

Whitney has often railed against her critics' supposedly unfair portrayal of her marital life, but Bobby remains sanguine on the subject. "The press is the press," he reasons. "They do what they do; they only tell the story from one perspective, and that's not always the truth."

This odd couple's version of the truth is at its most cringeworthy when their quiet, articulate 11-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina, joins her parents in front of the camera, to her evident embarrassment. Bobby insists her appearances aren't as awkward as they look. "She wanted to do it," he says. "She loves the camera; in the beginning she was a little shy, but she got used to it."

Some critics have suggested that certain reality shows constitute little more than aberrant behavior passing as entertainment, and Being Bobby Brown does little to counter that theory. But Andrew Cohen, Bravo's vice president of production and programming, maintains that his channel is not exploiting the eccentric stars. "There's no editorializing in this show," he says. "We just present Bobby and his family as they are. Our reason for doing it is to be able to portray them cleanly — to do it without judgment and without dummying up the drama."

It's perhaps not surprising that Bobby would subject himself to such exposure: The former teen idol hasn't made a solo album since the music industry's cassette age. As a cynic might put it, if you can't sell any records, why not sell your dignity?

It's not quite so easy, however, to explain his wife's complicity. She may have passed her multiplatinum peak, but Whitney is still a star, with a major-league mystique that somehow transcends her personal travails. The fans who tune in to this series will witness a side of their idol that they've never seen before — acting spaced-out and silly and swearing like a stevedore — which goes some way toward explaining why her management company, Nippy Inc., declined to comment on this project after issuing a pointed reminder that this is "Bobby's show, not Bobby and Whitney's show." (Whitney's publicist could not be reached.)

And Bobby? This summer, he says, he'll be touring to promote a brand-new single on his independent Brownhouze label, with plans for an album by year's end. Clearly he needs all the image help he can get: Two members of his entourage were stabbed at an Atlanta restaurant he was visiting in late May, and a Massachusetts court issued a warrant for his arrest in early June for failing to appear in court for a child-support hearing.

Whatever happens next for the star of Being Bobby Brown, he has already set the bar extremely high for himself. Because whenever you trade in your dignity, the question inevitably follows: What are you going to do for an encore?