A few months ago I was talking to Karen,
one of my married friends with too much time on her hands. "I like the
Game Show Channel," she said, "But why don't they make any of their
own shows? How hard can it be?" I said I didn't know.
I do now. A friend in "The Industry" sent
me a tape, consisting of pilots for five Game Show Channel original
shows. Three of them are standard fare, formulaic variations on sturdy
themes -- "Fling!", "Rhyme that Couplet", and "Dogs, Cats, Snakes, and
Kids!". They will fit right in with the Game Show Channel's
programming -- they look like re-runs already.
Much more interesting were the failures,
"Food Challenge USA!" and "Cage Match Storytelling".
Everybody who'd ever seen it knew that
American TV was going to rip off "Iron Chef", it was just a matter of
time. But the smart money was on the Food Network, not the Game Show
Channel. Who knows how things could have turned out? At least what
we've lost in quality we've gained in camp.
For those who've never seen it (it only
shows in fuzzy Japanese UHF stations in New York, LA, and San
Francisco), Iron Chef is
a Japanese game show cooking and Samurai spirit; each week some guest
chef comes on, challenged to cook an entire meal featuring one
ingredient (Challenge mushroom! Challenge peach! Challenge eel!) for a
panel of celebrity judges. Their opposition: the "Iron Chefs",
chef/samurai hybrids who are summoned to compete on rising pillars in
style that would do Siegfried & Roy proud. The whole spectacle has a
flavor reminiscent of a sporting event, with a pit reporter,
play-by-play and color commentary in the booth.
As knowledge about it bubbles up through
the underground, it's gained a cult following in the USA with all the
trappings: zine coverage, and a drinking game. Somebody at GSN has
enough sense to jump on a bandwagon when they see one, and Food
Challenge USA! was born.
They fucked up the translation, but at
least they fucked it up in an amusing way, like those 'insert tab A
into slut B' assembly instructions that used to come with cheap
Japanese toys before they were replaced with cheap Chinese toys.
The most obvious change is in the Iron
Chefs, here unimaginably called the Food Warriors. They're at least
trying to preserve the spirit of Charles Nelson Reilly; the manga-like
samurai warrior ideal has morphed into campy American stereotypes: we
get "Mama Mia", the Platonic ideal Italian mother, who waddles out
like a 300 pound cliche spouting duck. We also get "The
Barbecutioner", who seems to be a male stripper in a cowboy outfit
with barbecue sauce bottles in his pistol holsters. Completing the
trifecta is "Mr. Tuck", a pudgy little man who to seems to be Wolfgang
Puck by way of a gone-to-seed Jack Tripper. I think they're trying to
play off some stereotype of a California chef, although I wonder if
apocryphal Middle America will have any idea what they're talking
The atmosphere is less riviting atheletic
action than professional wrestling. The play-by-play guy is
servicable, but rendered near colorless by the color commentary,
handled by pod-Prudhomme Cajun John Leger, who is like John Madden,
but less to the point (for those who don't watch football on Fox,
that's like saying 'like Anna Nicole Smith, but less into
Proust'). After "The Barbecutioner" executed a particularly deft move
with his turkey baster, Leger spent a full thirty seconds stringing
together seemingly random phrases about about lesbians, artificial
insemination, and Texas adoption law. The field reporting was handled
by a breathy Joel Nardo (I think I've seen him on professional
wrestling before), who kept exclaiming "My my my" everytime one of the
cooks did something exciting, like adding salt.
The actual competition wasn't that
exciting. The magic ingredient this time was artichoke hearts, and the
contestent, a perfectly nice woman from California named Janet took
the Barbecutioner down to the wire. I guess it was exciting, for
cooking. But despite their attempt to create a professional wrestling
feel to the endeavor, it still lacked the Manga-like pace and visuals
of Iron Chef.
Someone will try again, I'm sure.
Cage Match Storytelling
Somebody at HBO has it in for writers. How
else to explain the cruelties heaped upon them in the HBO-produced
"Cage Match Storytelling"?
The basic premise is simple: lure
struggling young writers on TV with fabulous prizes, and then make
them compete in an informal extemporaneous storytelling competition; a
panel of judges votes on their favorites, and, most of the time, we
have a winner.
Fair enough. The writers seemed
non-descript, wincing and squinting like deer caught in headlights as
the the host read their introductory blurbs; unsure of how to react to
the heat of the spotlights, the competition, and the unblinking eye of
television. I'd never heard of any of them, and they were all
described in terms of other established writers, a sure sign of
struggle. I guess if you're planning to go through a dozen writers a
week, you can't be too picky. At least there was some variety; the
episode I saw offered up Joel, 'who mixes cosmic Lovecraftian despair
with the noir sensibilities of Jim Thompson'; Jessica, 'a post-retro,
post-hip Pagan Kennedy for the Howard Stern generation'; and Adnan,
described as 'a Turkish-American melange of David Foster Wallace and
Hunter S. Thompson'.
But the best part is the judges: they're
children, ages 5-10. Worse, they're child actors. Who better than to
judge the fruits of imagination than a child, you say? Right. Before
every match, each judge gets introduced, and explains what kinds of
stories they like -- 'I like stories with horses." "I like stories
with a princess". "I want to hear about a fireman!" It was like an
old-school episode of Star Trek; you could see the faces of the
writers melt as they realized that those who controlled their destiny
were spoiled, idiot child gods.
Even the prizes looked like they were
designed to fuck with the writers: for the pilot, it was a date with
an aspiring model of the appropriate gender -- what good is that going
to do them? Seriously. I was already imagining the excuses the models
would use to leave early. At least they'll get a free meal out of it.
Such niceties disposed of, it's on to the
contest. The writers take turns sitting in front of the children;
they're handed three cards: an event, a character, and an
object. Adnan was up first. He drew 'movie', 'clown', and
'tree'. Adnan panicked for a second. You could see his inner David
Foster Wallace struggling to get out, already planning the footnotes
and the convoluted grammar -- but then he looked at the kids, and
imagined what the model looked like, and told a stumbling children's
story about a young clown in a movie who dreamed about a tree, and
when he found it, he climbed up in it and never left.
Jessica's turn was uneventful; drawing
'fire', 'mother', and 'bowl', she told a well-crafted if bland tale
about a young girl who told stories no one believed, but who ended up
saving her mother from a big fire. I was unsure which members of the
Howard Stern generation were paying attention.
Finally it was Joe's turn. He got
'picnic', 'farmer', and 'masking tape'. He took a deep breath. He
started out fine. There was a little girl riding a horse at a
picnic. He started to flounder -- he wasn't sure what to do with the
girl, since Lovecraftian despair was out -- the little girl rode too
far away, and her mother yelled at her, and she came back, and then a
farmer fed the horse some oats. There was a terrifying pause -- Joe
was blocked, and didn't say anything for about twenty seconds. It was
painful to watch.
But then, he smiled. You could see
something in him snapped; he didn't care anymore about dating the
model. He looked at the children, and continued with the story. The
horse got sick and fell over, trapping the little girl. It's chest
swelled up, and burst, throwing, and I quote, 'a blanket of maggots
that wrapped around the little girl like her mother tucking her into
bed'. The story continued more or less in the same vein, with the
little girl crawling inside the horse, and it ended with Joe
triumphantly remembering the tape, and having some creepy guy come and
tape up the horse with the little girl inside.
One of the child actors burbled something
and ran offstage. Another one cried. It made for great
television. Adnan glared at Joe, realizing that he'd blown his chance
to let his inner Hunter S. Thompson enlighten these kids on what he
thought would be national TV. It's too bad this one failed, really --
although it's not hard to see why. Maybe with some retooling and
better vetting of writers...