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Farewell, Summer Television


The fall television season starts soon, and with it, the return of some of our most beloved entertainment franchises.  Soon we’ll know the true extent of Chuck Lorre’s rage at Charlie Sheen when he offs him in the most humiliating way possible on A Man + Ashton Kutcher ÷ the Teenage Remainder.   I’m pretty sure we left “House” in some kind of interesting scrape at the end of last season, although I am hard pressed to remember what it was.  And then there are the shiny new shows, like Whitey, which I think stars the lady from the Progressive Insurance ads shacking up with her boyfriend as they try to save up money to buy him a shaving kit.  There’s also the sci-fi show, Terra Nova, which upon cancellation will introduce us to the next generation of futuristic whiners mortally wounded that their series was not allowed to fulfill its destiny, even if that destiny was merely to be the Time Tunnel of 2011.     

Most exciting of all is NBC’s bold new experiment in wasting, as egregiously as possible, the considerable talents of Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph.  With little to no shame, Up All Night apparently has no more ambition than to document the hilarity of couples fighting over just who is going to get up and stick a bottle in the puling maw of a baby.  Given that these TV couples apparently chose to have these TV babies, I’m not sure why this should be my TV problem.  I know young parents secrete an enzyme that makes junior’s inopportune puking on various fabrics and visitors endlessly fascinating, but in the past such banal war stories have typically and mercifully circulated only among fellow parents —how NBC plans to do 22 episodes a year of dirty diaper jokes for those who don’t find little Johnny’s little shits adorable is a true mystery.  Unless one of the babies is from Venus or the reincarnation of Albert Fish or something equally edgy, I’ll pass, thank you very much. 

Of course, for all these new and returning shows to take to the airwaves, we must first say goodbye to the “summer” television season.  Time was when there was no such thing as a summer television season—the networks simply flipped into rerun mode and assumed everyone, on both sides of the screen, had better things to do with their time.  But as TV gradually came to realize that going dark for three months might, in the very near future, lead to an entire generation completely forgetting that television ever existed in the first place, the decision was made to create the illusion of exciting new programming year round.  

Many complain about the quality of summer television.  Not me.  In fact, I’m always a little sad to see it go.  Summer programming, as we have come to know it over the past few years, is like television’s feral cousin—recognizable as TV and yet unexpectedly “wild” in a way that the prestigious gloss of the autumn schedule would never abide.  It’s like the dog you once rescued from traffic at the side of the Interstate: he’s cute enough that you grow a little attached to him as he lives in your basement for a few days while you put up posters; and yet he is deranged enough that you come to understand how he got left on the side of the freeway in the first place.  You’re a little sad when the Humane Society finally comes to take him away, but not inconsolably so, much like the feeling you have when MTV breaks out the cattle prods to herd Ronnie and Sammi back into their enclosures until next season. 

One of the highlights of this summer was undoubtedly ABC’s Wipeout, a show where mobile assemblages of bone and meat subjected themselves to a punishing obstacle course for reasons that apparently had nothing to do with either prizes or fame.  In fact, I’m not even sure if Wipeout was actually a game show or just an ongoing X-treme sport product demo featuring recruits from various So-Cal fitness clubs looking to “test themselves” against the challenge of a human pachinko machine.  Making it even more stupidly unfair, some off-screen tech-lord apparently had the power to activate various booby-traps at his own discretion, making sure that even the most worthy competitor eventually ended up in the drink with a broken coccyx.  If, as a child, you ever wondered what it would be like to be miniaturized so that you could try to outrun the various components of "Mousetrap," this was the show for you. Wipeout may seem like America’s take on those wacky Japanese game shows that focus on contestant pain and humiliation, but that comparison makes little to no sense given that it is almost impossible to humiliate an American, especially one appearing on television.  It would seem these people decided to appear on Wipeout for little more than talking points at various Orange County juice bars; or perhaps because, to have not done so, would be to lead a life slightly less awesome.

Less strenuous but no less ridiculous has been NBC’s It’s Worth What?, a post-empire version of The Price is Right hosted by a strangely distracted, perhaps even painfully embarrassed Cedric the Entertainer (at top).  Whereas The Price is Right concentrates on commonsense consumer-citizenship, rewarding viewers for actually knowing what a can of tuna or a washing machine might cost, It’s Worth What? works the freak show wing of capitalism.  The conceit here is that Cedric the Entertainer has access to a giant vault filled with odd treasures from around the world.  In each segment, contestants have to guesstimate the price of said objects—most of them ostensibly worthless-- without fainting from shock or outrage.  Quick—which costs more—a Lamborghini Spider or a mint copy of the first issue of Spiderman?  The answer is almost unimportant (it’s the sports car, by a hair)—it is the question itself that is so perversely cruel.  In an era of massive economic retrenchment, here we have an entire hour devoted to “Theoretical Expenditures of the Leisure Class,” reminding viewers struggling to make rent that someone out there just paid 2.35 million for a Honus Wagner baseball card. 

At least It’s Worth What? feigns a “gee-whiz, rich people sure are crazy” type of populism that makes it available, however remotely, for an eventual Marxist epiphany. Over on Lifetime, however, there resides the irredeemable loathsomeness of The Picker Sisters.  In what is perhaps the most tone-deaf series currently on television, here we have two noisome interior designers (apparently on loan from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) who wander through economically depressed regions of the nation in search of hidden treasures and cute knickknacks that they might refurbish and sell in their upscale boutique back in L.A.  In the episode I saw, the vulture twins spent a couple of hours swindling an older junk-gentleman in Alabama out of all kinds of odd scrap metal so that it might be stripped, powder-coated, and sold as adorable patio furniture to some copyright lawyer at Sony, a tool who will no doubt regale guests at his pool party with the interesting story of their origins (“Apparently these chairs were originally involved in the transportation of chickens in Alabama,” he laughs, reaching for another canapé. “How, I simply can’t imagine.”).   
Not only is The Picker Sisters irksome for unabashedly trading in fantasies of the bi-coastal tasteful gleefully screwing over clueless rubes, it is also—quite unintentionally, I’m sure--a rather depressing documentary about the precipitous decline of the nation’s once great manufacturing base.  In another segment, the gals raid an old Army depot (again, somewhere in the south), now reduced to little more than a rusting collection of obsolescent hardware.  They are delighted to find an “Acid Suit" locker, a stand-alone metal closet that apparently once housed an emergency “acid suit” for that lucky soldier called upon to deal with the ominous eruption of an acid emergency in the plant.  Rather than ponder the object as silent testimony to the shared dangers and selfless sacrifice of previous generations working difficult jobs for the common good of the nation, the Pickers instead declare that the locker would make a great “wet bar” for some young Hollywood bachelor.  On a truck and back to L.A. it goes.  With any luck, residual benzene levels will ensure that everyone involved feeds a tumor with each new Mojito. 

The vaguely hypnotic Hillbilly Handfishin’, meanwhile, attempts to redress the regional antagonisms provoked by the likes of The Picker Sisters.  Here unlikely handfishers from around the nation come to a lake in Oklahoma to stand around in muddy water and let freakishly gigantic catfish swim through their legs—a practice offered as the key to resolving all manner of racial, regional, sexual, and class difference.  It’s an odd show, inasmuch as most of the “action” takes place under the water and the producers are apparently too cheap to spring for any submergible camera equipment.  For most of the program, we watch as three visiting couples and the two hosts stand waist deep in water, occasionally shouting out with surprise, pleasure, and/or pain when a giant flathead cat swims past their thigh, giving the whole enterprise a vaguely pornographic feel (perhaps better captured in the title of the earlier fish-in-the-crotch show, Okie Noodlin’). 

Speaking of slimy things swimming near your junk, Animal Planet got just about everything right in titling its summer exploitation classic: Man-Eating Super-Snake.  The premise here, as I understand it, is that there is currently a rogue species of Anaconda loose in the Florida Everglades.  If they begin to interbreed with another humongous snake indigenous to the area, most likely everyone weighing under 80lbs. and living south of Jacksonville will soon be dead.  The few minutes of the program that I witnessed featured the requisite “slither-cam,” in this case showcasing “man-eating super snake” as he made his way toward a crib.  I assume the baby was rescued at the last second and everyone learned an important safety lesson, like not leaving your baby’s crib at the edge of a swamp, but I can’t say for sure. 

Of course, the summer friends I will miss the most are the freaks, the glorious, glorious freaks, especially those lost souls that we got to meet in the second season of TLC’s My Strange Addiction.   Who could forget the gas-huffing Mom or the grown woman who took her creepy stuffed animals everywhere?   The woman who bathed thrice daily in bleach or the hipster taxidermist obsessively prowling the streets of Brooklyn in search of dead mice to stuff?  And who could forget Teresa, she who eats rocks, and Casie, she who eats the ashes of her dead husband?   If you somehow missed either of these segments over the summer, I highly recommend them both.  Teresa was especially amazing in that she apparently really eats rocks, not by swallowing little pebbles, mind you, but by actually taking great big crunchy bites out of large, hard rocks—teeth, intestines, and foley sweetening be damned!

I have come to love My Strange Addiction so much that I fear it may have peaked this season, so in the interest of having some good kooks for next summer, I will end here with the casting call currently posted at TLC.  If you are really screwed up, I beseech you, for my own personal entertainment pleasure, to share your story with us all:

MY STRANGE ADDICTION
Think you have an unusual compulsive behavior or strange habit? Do you find it consuming you, affecting your life, work and relationships? If you or someone you know is suffering from a strange addiction and would be interested in participating in our program, please send us a short description of your unusual behavior and the impact it has on your daily life to: casting@20west.tv. Please make sure to include your name, age, city of residence, a current photo, and a phone number or email where you can be reached for further questions.

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