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Killer Instinct (2005)
More of the same but not as good
There's a group of Fox TV executives sitting around a boardroom table wondering what new show to commission.
'How about aiming for something like 24 or The West Wing?' says one of them, but they all agree it would be too expensive, and cheap TV is less likely to harm the station if it flops.
'Well, how about getting together some great comedy writers and doing a quality sitcom?' offers another and is fired on the spot. 'Don't you know good writers cost lots of money!' the big chief barks. 'That's why we invented reality TV.'
'We could do yet another crime drama...' suggests a man in a bland suit. 'I'm listening...' the boss replies, suddenly interested. 'People like CSI, so let's do another copy of that,' Blandman adds.
'But there are already far too many CSI clones out there, what can we do to make ours stand out?' a naive junior enquires and is sacked instantly. 'Stand out! If we do that people may be confused! Let's give them more of what they already like!' the big chief screams.
'Let's just add more violence and make it really grisly, we are Fox after all,' another suit suggests to a hearty reply of 'now you're getting it', from the big chief. 'We could make them the Deviant Crimes Unit,' he goes on to add, clearly on a roll.
'By Jove, he's got it!' the big chief laughs, 'and the victims could be beautiful and vulnerable women who wear very little on screen.' 'Well that would certainly distract people from the average acting and poor scripts,' Blandman points out.
'Then it's settled, we just need a name,' the big chief announces. 'We could call it Sex Cops Violence?'
'Too literal, how about Killer Instinct it conveys violence, but sounds a bit like Basic Instinct which had lots of sex.'
'Puuurfect', the big chief replies and then they all slap each other on the back and go and cancel Arrested Development.
Criss Angel Mindfreak (2005)
Goth magic hoopla
There was a time when the only reality show on television was the news, and the rest of the schedule was full of fiction. Now it seems there's little but 'reality ' on the box, while conversely some of the most entertaining and comical fiction is on Fox News. The edges have become very blurred and Criss Angel Mindfreak does little to clarify things.
It's billed as a reality show about a magician, who's also a member of a heavy metal band. It also showcases his music, live street magic, some behind-the-curtain preparation and his family life. Part Marilyn Manson, part David Blaine with a touch of Alan Partridge, we follow Angel around as he spouts mystical nonsense, including this gem: 'A lot of what I do is completely real. There are no tricks. It really is the mind, body, and spirit connection. And a lot of what I do is an illusion. It's up to you to determine what is real and what is... illusion.' As well as talking like a tipsy teenage goth at a Ouija board party, he does some impressive tricks and stunts. These include levitation, setting himself on fire to 'honour' his mother on her 70th birthday and lying on a bed of nails as a Hummer drives over him. If you like magic tricks and the colour black, this show should entertain.
He may well look and talk like the sort of person you'd never get tired of punching, but as tricksters go he's one of the best. The Academy of Magical Arts at Hollywood's Magic Castle a place so pretentious it's powered entirely by the magicians' sense of self-importance named him 2005 Magician of the Year. Angel is so confident in his abilities, he once publicly challenged magic's other infant terrible David Blaine, saying if Blaine could perform a trick that he couldn't replicate on the spot then he would retire. Somewhat tellingly, Blaine never took up the challenge, although to be fair, Criss is yet to live in a box for 40 days and be abused by Londoners.
Most of the tricks have been done before by the likes of Penn & Teller (who are friends of Criss) but all the same, some of these stunts are really great fun. That is, unless you watched one of those 'magician's tricks revealed' series and you'll know how a lot of them were done. For those who didn't peek behind the curtain, this won't freak your mind as the title promises, but it will set it off thinking about how he did it. And these days, a TV programme that makes you think is a rare trick indeed.
Fat Actress (2005)
Fat lass does well
After years in the Hollywood wilderness, Kirstie Alley returned to the public eye when she put on lots of weight. The former Cheers star used that negative publicity and wrote a semi-autobiographical sitcom about her battle against being 'too fat for TV'
If you type, 'fat jokes' into Google and hit search it comes back with a hefty 172,000 results. If you do the same search for, 'why fat people should be treated with respect and not mocked for looking like a walrus with legs' it comes back with nothing at all. This is no coincidence.
We love to laugh at the rotund, the bulbous, the porky-chops, but despite the popular convention they are not all jolly. For a fat actress it's a miserable, tough slog getting work simply because network executives, more often than not, hire thin women for lead roles. This is what happened to former Cheers and Veronica's Closet star Kirstie Alley. And with no meaty roles coming her way she lost confidence and evidently got stuck into lots of meaty rolls of her own. When the media noticed that she had ballooned in weight, tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, they started featuring her on the cover of their magazines and metaphorically poking her with the always unfair 'ewww gross, you're not thin' stick.
Alley's response was to co-write and co-produce her own semi-fictional sitcom about life as a fat actress who's struggling to get work in Hollywood. The result is pretty much a cross between the outstanding mockumentary Curb Your Enthusiasm and diet-based reality show You Are What You Eat. In other words, Curb Your Eating. That's pretty much what the plot here is all about, following the first episode where Kirstie meets with president of NBC Jeff Zucker only to find out that he thinks she's too fat for TV, thus sending her on a mission to lose weight and get back on the box. Jeff Zucker is played by Jeff Zucker, the real president of NBC which just adds to the twisted reality of the show, as Jeff's a man who's no doubt done this for real a hundred times.
Also appearing as themselves are Kid Rock, Rhea Perlman (Carla from Cheers), Carmen Electra and Kirstie's fellow scientologists John Travolta and Leah Remini. However in 2006, Alley expressed some disenchantment with scientology, pointing out that it was of no help in her attempts to lose weight, and ultimately she turned to diet guru Jenny Craig. She has since been something of a poster women for her diets. In Fat Actress, there's a scene when Alley gets excited after her agent calls with a job offer, thinking someone has overlooked her size when casting, but ends up screaming in despair when the job turns out to be diet guru Jenny Craig wanting her as a spokesperson. Sometimes it's hard to see where the acting ends and the real Kirstie begins. For much of the time what you see is entirely unscripted and in many ways this is half of the appeal. You also get an eerie feeling that many of the things you see could well have actually taken place in the not-to-distant past. John Travolta (Alley's co-star in the Look Who's Talking movies) has a cameo in the first episode and a desperate Alley tries to convince him that there's some mileage in Look Who's Talking 4: 'But we haven't explored all the possibilities,' she begs. 'We haven't done talking cats.'
After a while, the string of fat jokes does wear a little thin, but there are some great set pieces and genuinely funny scenes even if Alley is too over the top on occasions and at times it can get a little bit uncomfortable. It's one thing watching her scream at her bathroom scales, wrestle with stretch pants that won't give enough or even cruise doughnut shops in hope of getting picked up by 'big-butt-loving black men', but when she starts munching on laxatives and shoving fingers down her throat you begin to wonder if she really did all these things behind closed doors. The comedy attracted a lot of criticism from eating disorder groups who were angered that it showed Alley making herself sick after binge eating, but that somewhat misses the point. It's not sitcoms like this that lead people to eating disorders, it's more often a result of the body fascism in society that's perpetuated by magazines and the Hollywood system that Alley herself is battling against.
If anything, there is poignancy buried deep in the utter debasement and humiliation that she pours upon herself for big belly laughs. It's a strange, post-modern and mostly truthful take on an actress and her real problems and at times it's very funny. A big slap on the back and fair play to Kirstie for using her talents to write, produce and star in a comedy that gets her back on the small screen by using the situation that kept her off it for so long. Sure, she went on Oprah to cry about her life, like every other 'troubled' and fading star, but this way she had something new to plug while talking. As a result, her appearance was almost a triumphant declaration of defiance and I'm sure she would have 'done a Cruise' and jumped over the sofa if only she didn't weigh more than the sofa in the first place.
Fat Actress is worth checking out, despite its faults. There are only seven episodes in the first series and no sign of a second being made, but no matter, it's a fine romp as it is. Any more would be overindulgence.
A decent show from WB...blimey!
Remember those stand-alone episodes of The X Files that were loosely based on urban legends and articles from backs issues of the Fortean Times? You miss them don't you? Well, this could be what you're looking for.
After a supernatural being killed their mother when they were infants, Sam and Dean Winchester's father taught them how to defend themselves and fight off evil. But as Sam's about to graduate from university their father goes missing, so his sons hop in an old Chevy and head off to find him and, wouldn't you know it, at each town they stop along the way, there's something sinister that needs dealing with. It's a bit like in Scooby Doo, but the evil here never turns out to be the sheriff wearing a mask, and (despite being from Warner Brothers) it's actually pretty creepy stuff the scene in the pilot episode where their mother is killed verges on disturbing.
Based on documented urban legends in each town they visit (an Indian curse, hook-handed killer, possessed scarecrow, etc) it won't stretch your disbelief to breaking point and the pair are likable.
Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, who made their mark as talking-eye-candy on other WB hits Smallville and The Gilmore Girls, play the brothers really well and aside from the horror, it's packed with hip, pop-cultural references and the soundtrack rocks. Rather than compiling it from 10-a-penny college bands like a common teen drama, the music is all older, classic rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, The Rolling Stones, Blue Oyster Cult, etc), which gives it a weightier feel.
It's no X Files, but amid the torrent of otherworldly series that have followed since Mulder and Scully quit the airwaves this is certainly one of the more enjoyable.
South Beach (2006)
Fur coat and no knickers
Set in South Florida's world of models, pools, beaches, drugs, gangsters and nightclubs this is another stab at copying the success of Baywatch, but adding some sub-Miami Vice elements for that prime-time soap measure.
It's also executive-produced by Jennifer Lopez, which explains why it looks like nothing more than one of her music videos. But despite virtually everyone on screen being stunningly good looking it's all fur coat and no knickers. Everyone is a hunk or a babe ready to flash the flesh, but nobody gets involved in anything remotely resembling a decent plot and the dialogue is flimsier than the thong bikinis some of the women wear. If that's all you need then tune in, but when it first aired in America, few did, and it ranked 152nd out of the 156 original series produced for network television in the 2005-06 season and was then dropped after eight episodes.
In LA last year I found myself on the beach where Baywatch was once filmed. It was 10am and few others were about so I ran along the sand in slow motion, just like 'The Hoff' used to do. Then I noticed that coming the other way was someone else doing exactly the same thing. We laughed, and (slowly) carried on our way. Baywatch might have been corny but it was a guilty pleasure loved by millions because it was light-hearted fun. South Beach will only have people running for the remote control, and almost certainly not in slow motion.
Kevin Arnold Comes Out
Hey! It's the kid from The Wonder Years! With that out the way there's not a whole lot left to enjoy in this dysfunctional family series that was cancelled after five episodes - although there were 13 made.
Fred Savage plays a closeted gay screenwriter who returns home from Hollywood to look after his mother (Jane Curtain) who has just been released from a mental institute after trying to run over her husband, because he left her for another woman. Based on the real-life experiences of the creator/writer Marco Pennette (who co-created Caroline In The City) it's good to see a gay person portrayed on TV who isn't effeminate and overly camp, and there are some decent moments in here. However, gags about mental illness, drug use and depression might not be everyone cup 0f lithium.
It moves from attempts to get a laugh to outright schmaltz in a way that The Wonder Years got away with, but here the subject matter is a lot darker, and it's hard to tell if it really works.
Luke Perry wins the lottery
Remember Luke Perry? Oh come on, course you do. He was in teen drama Beverly Hills 90210 playing a high school kid even thought it was patently obvious that the man was so far into his 30s he was old enough to be some of the students' father. There you go, you can picture him now, well he's back.
In fact he's the main draw in this drama that follows 20 lottery winners after they all become notably rich. With US$20million each they head off spending but for each of the characters the win comes with unexpected problems from marital and ethical to legal and criminal. While indulging in the fantasy of instant wealth (there are lots of shopping scenes) it also fulfils the human desire to see rich people have problems too. Lightweight and easygoing it's more soap than heavy primetime material but a nice distraction nevertheless.
For Luke Perry, being given another shot at the prime time must have actually been like winning the lottery. But Windfall was cancelled in the first season, although there are 13 episodes to watch which is more than many are permitted these days. Many in America didn't get the chance to see how it all ended as some NBC affiliates screened pre-season football instead of the final episode. Well worth a look but if all this talk of Luke Perry has done is awaken a buzz of 1990s nostalgia then please note that the Beverly Hills 90210 DVD set was released to buy last November. You're excited now aren't you?
The Scholar (2005)
The sound of barrel bottoms being scraped
Here's the official blurb: 'Ten of America's brightest high school seniors compete for a full-ride college scholarship worth up to $240,000 to the college of their choice. The pressure is on for the students at the end of each episode when they face the sudden-death oral exams at the hands of the scholarship committee.' At the risk of sounding like Rigsby from Rising Damp, in my day, entrance to university was based on exam results and scholastic aptitude rather than as a prize from a television show but I guess I'm just old-fashioned. Dangling the carrot of an education in front of people who feel they have to win a competition to get one, says as much about the barrel-scraping nature of reality TV as it does about the American educational system. You have to feel sorry for the poor sucker in the real world who was denied a place at the university of their choice to make way for the winner of this series. Watch and weep. Coming next month: A group of sick children sing and dance for a panel of judges, including Simon Cowell, and after rounds of tearful eliminations, the winner gets their life-saving operation. No, not really, but it's surely just a matter of time.
Unless you have a copy of the home video she made with husband Tommy Lee, this marks the return to the small screen for Pamela Anderson following her Baywatch adventures. In Stacked she plays Skyler Dayton, a bookstore employee. Skyler is tired of her non-stop partying lifestyle and bad choices in boyfriends, so wanting a major life change; she wanders into The Stacks, a small family-run bookstore. Yes, it's hard to imagine her working as a bookstore assistant offering opinions on the latest literature and classic novels, but then the kooky Ellen DeGeneres did pull off a comedy set in a bookstore in the mid '90s. Stacked, however, can't match up to Ellen, which itself was nothing spectacular. The jokes here are so bawdy and obvious you half expect to see Sid James pop up let out a burst of his famous cackle every time someone delivers a punchline, but then did you really expect subtle jokes from a comedy that stars a women who made her fortune by looking great in a swimsuit? In one later episode Skyler, wearing a designer minidress, drops a muffin on her lap and screams, 'I've got blueberry all over my Pucci!' Her co-worker replies, 'what do you expect with a dress that short?' Fnarrr and, indeed, fnarrr. The jokes are so lowbrow they're almost in her cleavage, but if you're a fan of plastic Pammy or the Carry On films then you may want to tune in.
Tommy Lee Goes to College (2005)
Welcome to Cliché High...
As the title suggests, Tommy Lee goes to an American college in Nebraska. For those who don't know who Tommy Lee is, he's the drummer from Motley Crue and the human equivalent of a high five. He's also the ex-husband of Pamela Anderson, with whom he made an infamous porn video, allegedly gave her hepatitis C and spent four months in jail after pleading no contest to kicking his then-wife in the groin. Ahh, true love. Billed as reality TV there's actually no reality here whatsoever. Much of the footage is of students asking him for his autograph, kids gawping at the C-list rock star or frat boys shouting the word 'dude'. In fact, he didn't even enroll at the college, he just went to a few of the classes, looked bemused and was then given a hot, blonde personal tutor in the hope that he would hit on her we can only presume. Hardly reality. The producers tried to put him in lots of potentially comic set pieces, but he neither plays the fool nor makes an effort to show he isn't one. Tommy just bumbles about and what's left is edited into a bit of a mess. It's a shame because if you've ever seen interviews with the man you'll know that Tommy can be a funny and fairly entertaining person, (when he's not giving his wife a good kicking) but none of that comes through here. Soundtracked by cartoon slide whistles and thrash guitars (as if the clown from Slipknot was audio director) Tommy heads off to find a roommate and we're shown nothing but tired old clichés. Nerds, geeks, the Asian guy who works really hard and mock-horrified glances from Tommy as he finds out that one potential roomie is a gay. It would have been more worthwhile to see him actually enroll in the college, actually live on campus and try hard to see if a rock star who's scrambled his brain with the best of them could pass any of the classes. Then he may have shown us something original about life at an American University, maybe even confound of few of the stereotypes rather than reinforcing them. If you want college hi-jinks then hire out Animal House or American Pie, because there are none here. But, sadly, there's nothing to be learnt from the exercise either. D-minus.