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March 1998 | Updated Monthly

Game Show Channel Failed Pilots

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".

Food Challenge USA

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 about.

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...

-- Beth Moog


Copyright 1998
James D Thomas