Friday, 23 August 2013

Now That's What I Call Reality TV

Three days is all it takes to flip the Big Brother house and get it ready for a new batch of housemates. Which is just enough time for some minimum wage production assistants to run a Swiffer across the laminate and dump Shake ‘n’ Vac on the bedroom carpet. Before you know it, you’ve got a house that’s fit for, well, whatever passes for celebrity in 2013. Given that half the wannabes in the regular show are technically more ‘famous’ than those cast as celebrity housemates, we’re in a something of a notoriety no-mans-land. Nonetheless, join me as we discover which celebrities will be spending the next few weeks bickering over cereal and having electrodes attached to their genitals for our amusement. Oh, and just one more thing, whenever I use the words ‘celebrity’ or ‘famous,’ just imagine giant fucking neon air-quotes around them.

Emma Willis is looking as bright and fresh-faced as ever, despite the fact that she seems to have been standing on that stage since last November. At least Davina only ever had to work Fridays. As for the rabble of screaming groundlings, it’s always odd to see them rippling with excitement, with no clue about who’s actually going in. Their signs are a particular treat – with no one to cheer on, they’re reduced to hand painting generic messages for the folks at home. I’m sure I saw one that said “Alan, switch the immersion on.” Still, Emma knows how to whip them into a frenzy, promising “five star luxury for our pampered divas” as if Mariah Carey and Celine Dion are going to be arguing over who gets the top bunk.

Tonight’s first housemate is Louis Spence, whose special skill appears to be constantly turning around and splaying his fingers. He’s developed an annoying habit of answering his own questions, and uses far to many s-sounds for someone with such a freakishly short tongue. Most of the time he sounds like someone trying to throttle a rattlesnake. I know middle-England loves Louis, because they think he’s hilariously camp. In fact, he’s just an appalling train wreck of outdated clichés and affectations, designed to confirm every misplaced prejudice that people have about gays. He also spins around so much it’s a miracle he hasn’t drilled his way right through the stage.

Next in is Lauren Harries, who delights in informing us that she used to be James Harries, the velvet-jacketed pre-teen oddity who delighted Wogan in the 80s with his Fauntleroy-esque shtick. Clearly, enough time has passed for her to convince herself that she was a child prodigy, in spite of the archive video evidence that shows the young ‘expert’ declaring “Antiques should always look old.” Lauren has been living as a woman for 15 years, and dressing like a Rovers barmaid for ten of them. There’s also been some highly unfortunate plastic surgery along the way, which means she always looks as though she applied her lipstick with the back of her hand. On the plus side, she’s had her hair done, and could pass for Ivana Trump’s stunt double. Sadly though, her repeated claim that “What you see is what you get” just adds to the confusion. She may be finally in the body she always wanted, but she’s still as baffling as an egg-whisk in a Santa hat.

Sophie Anderton clearly didn’t learn her lesson from her last unsuccessful stint in a reality show, so here she is again to prove that models don’t grow old gracefully; they just turn into Faye Dunaway in Supergirl. Sophie reminds us all of how much coke she shoveled up her photogenic nose, and then says without a trace of irony, “Believe it or not, I can actually be quite boring.” And Stephen Hawking doesn’t do many triathlons. Having left the catwalks behind, Sophie now DJs “all over the world.” Which basically means she gets flown out to Qatar twice a year to pout seductively and plug in her iPod.  

Only fifteen minutes and three housemates in, but there’s already a secret mission. It appears that Sophie and Lauren are going to be stuck in a ‘cult temple’ with Louis and his incessant, “Oooh, backdoor, stop it” nonsense.  Congratulations to Endemol then, for making Sophie Anderton look like the lowest maintenance housemate. The temple itself looks more like a day-spa and brothel; Louis and Lauren spend their time judging the quality of the soft furnishings, while Sophie pretends to be easy-going. They’ve also got a live feed so they can watch the new housemates enter the main compound, plus notes on each new inhabitant. I think that means they’ve been given Emma’s script.

This year’s soap stars come as a BOGOF deal; Bruce Jones and Vicky Entwhistle. Since leaving the Weatherfield cobbles, she’s done some theatre and he’s lived in a caravan. Ah, smell the celebrity – Emma might describe them as “soap legends” but they’re bringing all the glamour and sophistication of a Matalan fire sale. “Why are you so scared?” Emma asks a trembling Vicky. “I am scared,” the actress answers unhelpfully. The two of them enter the house and seem genuinely supportive of one another, which is nice. But as Vicky descends the stairs and declares “Oooh, I’ve got them weighing scales at ‘ome” it’s clear that she didn’t have to dig deep to find Janice Battersby.

If you were thinking that Lauren Harries was going to be this series’ most inexplicable curio, you were wrong. Despite looking a good two decades older than her tender 18 years, Courtney Stodden gained a certain degree of notoriety in 2011, when she married the creepy 50 year-old actor Doug Hutchinson. Rather than just saying she married an older man, the walking cautionary tale explains cryptically: “I’m best known for my controversial union” – as though she spends her time picketing for strippers’ employment rights. She adds “it’s hard to raise eyebrows in Hollywood” and given her disturbingly immobile expression, it’s clear she speaks from painful personal experience.

Abz Love (yes, really) will be familiar to viewers of this year’s surprise reality hit The Big Reunion. Speaking in his weirdly affected accent, that sounds half Turkish, half Cornish, he explains “I was in quite a dysfunctional band called Feyev.” Sadly, he spent six figures on “sex, drugs and rock and roll” – which I guess is a damning indictment of Ticketmaster’s booking fees. In an attempt at depth, he tells us “I’m happy to sit and talk, but not about shit,” suggesting he should probably revisit this VT when he’s done. He’s doing this because he needs the money and is tired of lodging with his Auntie Wendy, who I imagine is going to be spending the next three weeks trying to have her earplugs surgically extracted. Back in the house and Courtney commends Abz on his audience reaction, before squeaking like a slow puncture that she got booed on her way in.  

Danielle Marr is apparently the “star” (I’m really using up these air quotes tonight) of a show called Dublin Wives, which has all the contrived scenarios and heavy eye-liner of every other staged reality show - just with a less interesting name. Describing her controversial ‘alpha female’ appearances on the show, she says “Literally everyone was talking about it.” Oh literally, how we’ve abused your once clear meaning. She recently did a stand-up comedy course, so I suppose she might be attempting humour, but she seems about as approachable as a bipolar skunk with a flick-knife.  Clearly the sort of woman who doesn’t like other women, and goes out of her way to inspire misogyny in others, the Daily Mail columnists are going to love her. As she enters the house, Louis admires the skin of her “delicatage”. Bless him.

Our next housemate is Dustin Diamond, former star of Saved By The Bell and owner of the world’s worst stage name. Having risen to fame as the unfunniest thing in a show that managed to redefine what could pass as ‘comedy,’ he’s since fallen on slightly harder times, even resorting to a sex tape. Because who wouldn’t want to see Screech on the vinegar strokes? Channel 5 obviously didn’t want to splash out on the rights for clips of Saved By The Bell, so Dustin has to try and describe his role, without saying ‘corporeal migraine.’ Oddly, he still manages to seem like the most likeable housemate so far, which says something about the quality of this year’s intake. He enters the house and is painfully polite to everyone, even Courtney who seems more interested in swapping shoes with Vicky. “I don’t want to appear improper,” the blonde vacuum declares. If that’s what she’s concerned about, maybe a cardigan wouldn’t have gone amiss.   

Less concerned with the concepts of politeness and decorum is Charlotte Letitia Crosby, something that washed up on the Geordie Shore. It takes some effort to make Big Brother legend Kinga seem like a finishing school graduate, but Charlotte’s declaration that “I piss meself, I shit meself” makes it clear that we’re in a brave new world. A clip from her show sees her boasting of having penises rammed in every orifice, including one in each eye. Somewhere in heaven, Emily Davison is wondering whether it was worth going under the King’s horse. While she prattles on about the intensity and duration of the wee she’s about to have, Emma tells us “I feel like I probably know her as well as her gynecologist.” Or her binman, for that matter.

Proof that reality TV is an equal opportunities exploiter, we’re also introduced to Essex’s Mario Falcone. He’s well known for his hair, and pouting like he’s trying to disgorge a shovel without actually opening his mouth. He thinks that “People are going to see me for the first time, looking like an absolute idiot,” inferring that he’s never actually seen an episode of TOWIE. Interestingly, he’s
only got three knuckles on his right hand, which doesn’t appear to have prevented him from growing into a complete wanker.

It wouldn’t be CBB without someone from Loose Women, so until they find a floor manager willing to come to Borehamwood for three weeks, we’ll have to make do with Carol McGiffin. She’s trying to say something interesting, and I’m afraid it’s something of a losing battle. She’s worried about being stuck on a show full of twats, but it’s a little late in her career to express those kinds of concerns. Still, at least all those years on the Loose Women panel mean she’s the only housemate who actually knows who the others are. As for the rest of them, just imagine 121 variations on a conversation that goes:
“So what do you do?”
“Erm, this.”

Just time for one last housemate – it’s ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson. Half man, half pork pie, mostly racist. Oddly, they seem to have put him in an all-white house, so the pressure’s off for a while. But it’ll be interesting to see how he handles Lauren when she re-enters the main house. After a quick and meaningless exchange with Emma: “I’ll just go in there to see what happens. And whatever happens happens,” he enters the house, gurning like a Grumbleweed with broken dentures. His first real chat is with Mario: “You’re from Essex. Right. I live in the midlands now.” Gripping stuff.  

So that’s it for another year. Less a line-up of actual celebrities, more a new compilation format called ‘Now That’s What I Call Reality TV.’ And now, it’s over to Rylan, whose ridiculous dentures make him look like a white picket fence with eyebrows. I can’t change the channel fast enough.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Dome Is Where The Start Is

When Stephen King published Under The Dome in 2009, his loyal fans proclaimed it a return to form, not least because of its size. Despite being a dab hand at short story-telling, King has always been happier producing books that, if hollowed out, could easily solve the housing shortage. After all, he is to the longform novel what Adam Richman is to the amuse bouche.

Under The Dome was a long-gestating project for the prolific author. Originally conceived during the gas shortages of 1972, it was always a cautionary tale of dwindling resources and bad government decisions. However, the fledgling writer found the project too big for him to handle at the time, so he put away the manuscript and concentrated on more pressing matters, like a town full of vampires and that barmy caretaker.

Thirty five years later, and the world was once again in crisis. As the rubble at Ground Zero smouldered, and Bush the 2nd gave his astonishingly arrogant “You’re either with us, or you’re against us” speech, King rediscovered the unfinished story, and set about completing it. He’d originally planned to stretch the narrative out over many months, but found that he was in danger of making even The Stand look like Anne Widdecombe’s erotic memoirs.

Issues of length aside, the finished novel was classic King – bucolic small town detail; a microcosm of Middle America, peppered with the author’s legendary ear for New England colloquialisms. But as any author will tell you, a great book doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great adaptation. King may be one of the most frequently adapted authors of modern times, but he’s also the most inconsistent when it comes to the finished product. For every Shawshank Redemption there’s a Mangler. For every Stand By Me there’s a Dreamcatcher. And for every The Shining (Kubrick) there’s a The Shining (Mick Garris).

That’s not to say that King hasn’t been well-served by TV in the past - Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone and Haven all deserved their considerable fan-bases. However, the small screen has often been responsible for neutering his most powerful work. My generation may have grown up with a deathly fear of clowns, but that was mostly thanks to Tim Curry’s incredible portrayal of Pennywise, rather than anything else that happened in Tommy Lee Wallace’s otherwise unremarkable IT mini-series. Elsewhere, The Tommyknockers, Rose Red, Storm of the Century and a woeful TV remake of Carrie (not the forthcoming Chloe Grace Moretz-starrer) all triggered more sleep apnea than sleepless nights.

Even so, hopes are high for the 13-part adaptation of Under The Dome. Here, for once, is a format designed to bring out the rich character detail associated with King’s writing. With Jack Bender on board for the pilot, having previous form as the director of Lost’s iconic first episode, and Steven Spielberg in the luxuriously appointed Executive Producer’s chair, early signs are positive.

Best of all, the show’s production team were quick to announce that they’d been given free reign to change the explanation for the mysterious dome’s origins. Without wanting to spoil too much, King’s original rationale made the similarly plotted The Simpsons Movie seem realistic in comparison. Borrowing heavily from Joe Dante’s bizarre mid-80s sci-fi adventure The Explorers, the denouement of King’s novel made most readers wish they’d just put the book down 100 pages from the back cover.

Already the surprise hit of the summer season in the US, Under The Dome makes its debut here on Channel 5. So here we are, watching a serialised horror show featuring a grotesque menagerie of caricatures trapped in an invisible prison, just as Big Brother reaches its unwatched finale. Talk about ingenious counter-programming.

The show itself wastes no time establishing its folksy backwoods setting. This is one of those all-American small towns, with one set of traffic lights. Where the pretty deputy police chief is engaged to the handsome firefighter, and the whole town congregates in a diner run by the tough-talking waitress with a heart of gold. There’s a handsome bad guy, an equally handsome (but mysterious) good guy, and a red-headed investigative journalist who won’t take no for an answer; even though she works for a small-town paper where headline news would be the repainting of a footbridge. Of course, all that changes the moment an invisible dome descends dramatically onto the town, instantly cutting it off from the rest of the world. One unfortunate cow is sliced in half, sliding messily down the side of the dome like a makeshift Damien Hirst. On the far side of town, a speeding truck implodes as it collides with the unseen barrier, and a light aircraft leaves a permanent dark smudge on the sky, as it explodes on impact.

As is often the case with King’s fiction, these big jaw-dropper moments are only here for shock value; little more than narrative flesh wounds. Ultimately, these grisly vignettes take second place to the character drama, and unfortunately, this is where the pilot of Under The Dome falls short. In literary form, King’s love of archetypes works, since we can get under the skin of the personalities who populate his fictional universe. TV pilots tend to answer a very different need, and have to combine exposition with character introductions in as ruthlessly efficient manner as possible. So it’s no wonder that this feels soapy and clichéd, rather than instantly compelling. The show’s villains are twirling their invisible moustaches before the second ad break, and heavy-handed flashbacks helpfully point out the identity of the body we saw buried in the woods during the opening scene. Equally, anyone hoping for sophisticated characterisation may feel a little short-changed by the mixed race lesbians with a troubled daughter, or the town’s teens, who appear to have been issued with beanie hats and skateboards as some kind of mandatory uniform.

The cast is comprised of familiar, rather than famous faces. Jeff Fahey gives good grizzle as the police chief with the dicky ticker. Given how many references are made to his pacemaker, and the mysterious dome’s electromagnetic effect on it, I predict it won’t be too long before someone’s hammering on his chest and shouting “Breathe, dammit.” The other key casting decision seems to be Hank from Breaking Bad as the town’s corrupt Councilman, ‘Big Jim’ Rennie. If the show stays true to the book, this could allow actor Dean Norris an interesting alternative to his former role as Walter White’s DEA brother-in-law.

What’s going to be most interesting, is seeing how closely the show sticks to the book’s clear political subtext. As an Executive Producer, King has been distancing himself from the politics, despite making clear associations between ‘Big Jim’ and Dick Cheney. The book’s greatest strength was its clever depiction of partisan politics, as observed through the prism of small town life. The producers may be hedging their bets until Under The Dome is more established, but the following dialogue gives me hope for the rest of the season:
“What if the government built this thing?”
“I doubt it?”
“Because it works.”

As for the rest of us, we’ll just have to wait and see whether the “eggheads” on the outside can figure out what’s going on, and hope the writers will be just as diligent in looking for answers.