Saturday, January 28, 2006

Royal Rumble 2006

PPV time again. This is one of the big shows of the year, so really, watching it is almost compulsory for wrestling fans. It's a show normally sold on the annual gimmick match - which has generally delivered. And that's particularly lucky this year, because most of the rest of the card is shocking.

It's also an interesting show in terms of the direction of the company. Traditionally, the Royal Rumble is the show where the WWE starts the build to Wrestlemania, their biggest show of the year. But there's a problem. At least as of a couple of days ago, there was no plan. There used to be a plan, but a combination of sudden changes and unpredicted injuries has thrown everything up in the air. Nobody really knows where we're going from now. They'd better have it worked out by Sunday.

Oh, and if you're wondering: yes, this is a show that's been going every year since the 1980s, when the name sounded a little less silly. For wrestling fans, it's one of those Top of the Pops titles that's too familiar to sound stupid.

1. The 2006 Royal Rumble. The big selling point of the show, and boy, it's got its work cut out. Basically, this is a 30-man battle royal. Elimination occurs by being thrown over the top rope and landing on the floor. The winner gets a shot at the world title in the main event of Wrestlemania. (Following the brand split, the winner now gets to choose which title to go for.) The gimmick is that the wrestlers enter at 2-minute intervals. This avoids the usual torpor of having 30 guys in the ring doing nothing very interesting, and means that it's usually possible to keep up the excitement for a solid hour thanks to the turnover of wrestlers.

Of course, it's also horrendously unfair, because the guy who comes in first is in real trouble. But that's fine, for wrestling purposes, because it means they can give somebody a huge push for surviving most of the match without the inconvenience of actually having them win.

The contestants for this year:-
  • Rob Van Dam, returning from a lengthy absence on the injured list. The fact that he's coming back in a 30-man battle royal suggests the WWE doesn't exactly have big plans for him, because he's certainly not winning.
  • Kane and the Big Show, the Raw tag team champions. They're certainly not winning.
  • Shawn Michaels. The plan, ludicrously, is for Shawn to fight WWE chairman Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania. Vince apparently feels he's got one last match in him, despite being over 60 by now. Anyhow, Shawn obviously can't win, so chances are Vince will screw him somehow to continue their rather bizarre feud.
  • Triple H. The original plan was for Triple H to win here and face John Cena at Wrestlemania. But Cena doesn't have the belt any more, and they can't really do Triple H versus Edge (two bad guys). The sensible move would be to abandon the idea altogether, but Triple H is the boss's son-in-law, and if he wants to headline Wrestlemania...
  • Chris Masters. Not in a million years.
  • Carlito. Ditto.
  • Trevor Murdoch. Cannon fodder.
  • Shelton Benjamin. Currently caught up in a curious angle where they're trying to turn him into a hated mummy's boy by having Thea Vidale accompany him to the ring, claiming to be his mother. Don't ask. It's actually working slightly better than it should.
  • Viscera. Token big fat guy so that somebody else can look good by eliminating him.
  • Chavo Guerrero. Half-hearted attempts to push him after his uncle Eddie's death have come to nothing, so he's not going to last long.
  • Jonathan Coachman, which at least means he won't be on commentary. Coachman has also just been allied with the horrendously ill-advised Spirit Squad, a gimmick which has appalled hardcore wrestling fans everywhere. The Spirit Squad, who debuted on Monday to total silence, are male cheerleaders. It's a lame comedy gimmick. The unlucky five members are Nick Nemeth (formerly Kerwin White's wrestling caddy, so this may be a step up), Nick Mitchell (from Tough Enough season 4), and Ken Doane, Johnny Jeter and Mike Mondo (newly called up from the WWE's training league, OVW). Doane and Jeter are considered to be big talents with genuine potential for the future. I've seen some of their OVW matches, and they're pretty decent. But this gimmick certainly looks like a career-killer. Everyone is baffled about what the WWE could possibly be thinking. If anything.
  • Ric Flair, because he's not doing anything else.
  • Chris Benoit, who's still feuding over the US title, so he won't be winning.
  • Rey Mysterio. An outside possibility here, because Rey winning the title at Wrestlemania could really work. Audiences love him, and it hasn't been done before.
  • Randy Orton. Also a possibility, but Orton just doesn't seem like somebody who should be headlining the biggest show of the year. He'd be the wrong choice, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.
  • Matt Hardy. Still being ritually destroyed for having had the nerve to criticise the company in public - and the foolishness to go back to work there.
  • Orlando Jordan, who is apparently about to be repackaged as a bisexual in a menage a trois. No, really.
  • Bobby Lashley, whose momentum has completely stalled now.
  • Sylvan. Cannon fodder.
  • Road Warrior Animal. Can't win for legal reasons - he's only insured for tag matches.
  • MNM, the Smackdown tag champions. Obviously, neither of these guys is winning.
  • Simon Dean, the evil fitness guru. Comedy cannon fodder.
  • Booker T, the US champion. He's got a belt already.
  • The remaining two Mexicools (after Juventud Guerrera was laid off).

That leaves three blank slots to be filled on the night. It's probably nobody particularly important. My money's on Triple H to win, not because he should but because they're too short-sighted to realise he shouldn't. Rey Mysterio is the only other sensible choice, and it's clearly crossed their mind (even though they seem to see it as a "Tribute to Dead Eddie" story). But they usually panic about pushing small guys and change their minds at the last moment. I'd rather see Rey, though.

2. WWE Title: Edge v John Cena. Actually, that video for Edge is out of date, but the WWE haven't updated their website yet, so it'll have to do. The new one is full of juddering logos saying "Rated R Superstar", if you're curious.

Edge is Raw's new WWE champion, having won the belt at New Year's Revolution - despite not being scheduled to fight for it. To the amazement of fans everywhere, the WWE finally remembered that back in March 2005, Edge won a ladder match which gave him a shot at the Raw world title at any time of his choosing within the next year. So, after watching John Cena successfully defend his title in a six-man match lasting half an hour, Edge bounces happily out, cashes in his title shot, and pins the exhausted Cena in two minutes to win the title. Obviously, the angle is that Edge is a totally undeserving champion and all-round asshole, so this is Cena's rematch.

The decision to put the title on Edge was a last-minute change of plans - Cena himself apparently didn't find out until the day of the show. As I've previously noted, audiences had been turning violently on Cena for the last few months. But the problem for the WWE was that he still had a massively loyal audience of women and children and sold more merchandise than anyone else on the roster. So the hope was that by taking the title off him they might turn things around.

Remarkably, it's worked. Almost the next night, audiences swung straight back to cheering for Cena again. It seems the crowds weren't implacably opposed to Cena himself, they just hated having him as champion. It'll be very interesting to see the reaction during this match, since while the crowds have been on Cena's side in this feud, they apparently don't want him to win the belt back. Meanwhile, after being catapulted from the midcard to the top of the show, Edge is doing rather well as champion. For no apparent reason, ratings have actually gone up. He's a fresh face on top, he's a decent enough wrestler to carry the show, and common sense says he should win here.

The fly in the ointment is that if Edge retains the title then Triple H can't have his coveted main event slot at Wrestlemania (because he can't challenge another bad guy for the title). Obviously, that shouldn't be a factor, but it probably will be. They're certainly hedging their bets to some degree, because Edge is still carrying around the ludicrous Spinning Bling title belt that Cena commissioned when he won the title last spring. (If you're wondering what happened to the real title belt, the previous champ JBL kept it, and I believe it ultimately got destroyed for storyline purposes. Not that anyone in the WWE is likely to remember that.) If Edge wins here, he should switch back to a proper title belt. For the moment, of course, it's in their interests to give the impression that Edge might be an overnight champion- title changes sell pay per views.

As for the match itself, it won't be fantastic - Edge isn't good enough to lift Cena to that level. But it'll probably be solidly above average. If the crowd are with them, it'll be good entertainment.

3. World Heavyweight Title: Kurt Angle v Mark Henry. Over on Smackdown, it's time once again for the annual Mark Henry Memorial Push. And everything has gone horribly to pot.

Mark Henry was signed by the WWE some years ago to a ludicrously long-term deal. He's billed as the world's strongest man, and while these claims are always disputed, Henry's claim is certainly as good as anyone else's. He's huge, and genuinely enormously strong. For some reason, back in the nineties, the WWE thought this would easily translate into a powerful monster wrestler.

Unfortunately, despite years of desperate attempts to train him, it has been painfully apparent that Mark Henry is a dreadful wrestler. He has the agility of an obelisk, and a distressing tendency to accidentally injure opponents for real. So for years now, Henry's career has oscillated back and forth between the main WWE roster, and the OVW training league. They call him up, they push him to try and recoup the absurd sums of money they're paying him, they realise he sucks, and they send him back to OVW until memories fade. And then they try all over again. He's finally nearing the end of his contract, and this bizarre challenge for the world title is their last desperate attempt to recoup their investment.

As noted, Henry is a brutal son of a bitch, and not somebody who should be allowed anywhere near a fragile opponent. Ever convinced that things will work out fine, the WWE decided he should feud with Smackdown's world champion Dave Batista, already nursing a serious back injury which would have merited surgery in its own right. Reputedly, Batista felt that the roster was so depleted due to injury and the death of Eddie Guerrero that he couldn't let everyone down by taking the time off. So off he went to do matches with Mark Henry... who promptly screwed up his shoulder too. Batista duly vacated the title and sloped off to spend six months recovering from major surgery.

With the Smackdown roster now decimated, and the bookers in panic mode, Kurt Angle was parachuted in from Raw and duly won the title in, of all things, a 20-man battle royal. Angle is a magnificent wrestler and automatically credible as champion. They immediately turned him into a hero since, frankly, Smackdown was running desperately short on them. Fortunately, this has manifested largely in Angle kicking out his villainous sidekick and fighting bad guys, rather than a total rewrite of his personality.

Besides, audiences always wanted to cheer Angle anyway. They respect him too much to hate him. The WWE pretty much caved in to this after a rather embarrassing period near the end of last year when they tried to position Angle as a traitor to his country who hated the troops in Iraq. Nobody bought it, and Angle looked noticeably relieved when he got to kill off the whole thing with a glorious interview in which he solemnly explained that he was so good that the people would cheer him no matter what he said. And then he proved it. ("I hope we lose the war in Iraq. My favourite country is France. I'm not a fan of the black people. And if I had a time machine, and I could go back and apply my ankle lock to any figure in history... I'd choose Jesus.")

But... yes, you guessed it. Angle is injured too. In fact, Angle has a history of chronic health problems, combined with a worrying tendency to ignore medical advice. His regular claim on TV that he won an Olympic gold medal with a broken neck is basically true. He appears to have an utter conviction that injuries are something you just work through. He has had neck surgery twice and suffers from sporadic numbness in his arms. He openly admits that he takes painkillers daily. (This, by the way, is why he spent so many months in a non-wrestling role as Smackdown general manager, and went on to do the very undemanding "Angle Challenge" segments where he'd beat up local wrestlers in 20 seconds.)

And guess what happened in one of his untelevised matches with Mark Henry? Bingo. Back injury.

Angle, being Angle, simply will not stop unless he is physically unable to continue. Henry is not a credible champion and should not win here. But Angle is so screwed that a Henry win is a serious possibility. Angle seems determined to put himself in a wheelchair by the time he's 45, and it would be nice if the WWE would stop encouraging him. They're not totally indifferent to the welfare of their wrestlers - they've actually got a fairly good record of helping wrestlers when they're badly injured - but they tend only to recognise the issue with hindsight. Angle ought to be one of the great talents in the history of wrestling, but he's also on course to turn himself into one of the business's great tragedies.

Anyhow, the match will be okay - even seriously injured, Angle is so talented that he can have a good match with anyone. If Henry wins, it means Angle's injuries are reaching terrifying levels that even he can't ignore.

Oh, and incidentally, Henry has inherited Angle's former sidekick Khosrow Daivari as his manager (since the newly non-evil Angle has no further need for him). Daivari

Right, those are the big matches. And now, filler...

4. WWE Cruiserweight Title: Kid Kash -v- ???. In a glorious example of chaotic, last-minute booking, this match was announced on Velocity, a show which isn't even broadcast on American television. Kid Kash, the defending Cruiserweight champion, has an arm injury, but he's been wrestling again in the last couple of weeks (with his arm in a cast!), so apparently it can't be that bad. Compared to some people, anyway.

Kash will defend his title in an "Open Invitational", which could mean anything. They haven't announced who the opponent is, or even how many opponents there are. It appears to have escaped the WWE's notice that Kash is a bad guy, and booking him in a mystery match against unknown opponents while he's legitimately injured means he will be fighting against genuinely unfair odds. That's stupid. That's what you do with the heroes, so that they either triumph over evil, or look like they've been screwed when they lose.

There are no storylines at all in the Cruiserweight division, so unless this is a device to get the belt off Kash due to his injury, he ought to retain. More likely, this has been thrown onto the card to fill time, because they've finally worked out that the other two matches simply cannot go longer than three minutes each. And that leaves an aching stretch of time to fill. The Cruiserweights are perfectly capable of putting on great matches, but the jury is out about whether anyone will care. Audiences have pretty much been trained to treat the Cruiserweight Title as an afterthought, and relegating most of the division to Velocity - a show Americans can only watch on the Internet - doesn't exactly help.

5. Ashley Massaro v Mickie James (special guest referee: Trish Stratus). Gloriously idiotic. This is the latest stage in the Trish /Mickie storyline. For those coming in late, the story is that Mickie is an obsessive fan of the women's champion Trish Stratus, and after trying to mentor her for a while, Trish has finally tired of Mickie's stalkerish tendencies. Instead she's focussing her efforts on Ashley, largely because all the other women on the roster are baddies. Mickie is consumed with jealousy. Hence, match.

As a storyline, there's basically nothing wrong with this. The problem is that it involves a match between Ashley and Mickie James, which is a horrible concept. There's only one good wrestler in this match, and she's the referee. Mickey has been okay in the past but seems to have completely lost it since joining the main roster. And Ashley is comically awful. She won the ludicrous Diva Search contest last year, and while she's plainly trying to learn to wrestle, the reality is that she obviously has no aptitude for it at all. She's truly dreadful. Her last TV match was described by one leading reviewer and ex-wrestler as "second-day-of-wrestling-school awful", and I'm in no position to disagree.

The match will be horrifying, especially because logic says Ashley has to win. Hopefully, it'll be short.

6. The Boogeyman v JBL. For those of you who demanded more Boogeyman... well, you're about to find out why you haven't been getting it. The Boogeyman has been hovering around the fringes of Smackdown with his utterly bizarre gimmick for months now. I'm not even going to try and describe this nut. Click on his name to watch his entrance video, and you'll get the general idea. Anyhow, in all that time, he's done nothing more than wrestle some two-move squash matches. Can you guess why that might be?

Precisely. He can't wrestle either. In fact, he's done one proper match on OVW television against Bobby Lashley and, er, it wasn't very good. He's got almost no experience, and he's also very injury prone. Unless he's improved enormously, this is going to be genuinely painful. It's also likely to expose his serious limitations as a wrestler, which could seriously put the brakes on his momentum. Admittedly, it's unclear what you really do with the Boogeyman... but having him wrestle former champion JBL is certainly not the answer. If JBL gets a good match out of this schlub, it'll be a miracle.

The storyline, by the way, is that the Boogeyman has been stalking JBL for no particular reason, and JBL has accidentally talked himself into this match by demanding something be done about it. They've also used it as an opportunity to finally rid JBL's aide Jillian Hall of her ridiculous facial growth, which was never remotely entertaining to anyone, and could only be safely disposed of in the context of a storyline as stupid as this.

Boogeyman has to win, really. It'd kill the character dead if he got pinned.

So... to buy or not to buy? On paper it's a dismal undercard - the women's match and JBL/Boogeyman will be shockingly bad, unless they're kept literally to under three minutes bell to bell. The Cruiserweight match could be anything, although the possibilities are there for it to be good. Angle/Henry and Cena/Edge could be good but are unlikely to be great, and even that depends on Angle being able to work around his injuries. But the Royal Rumble match is almost invariably good fun, and while the two world title matches won't be technical classics, this is a genuinely huge show in storyline terms - we'll find out tonight where on earth the company is going. Somewhat against my better judgment, I'm buying, but that's more of a fan decision than a genuine recommendation.

A Cock and Bull Story

A Cock & Bull Story is not an adaptation of Tristram Shandy, in much the same way that Adaptation was not an adaptation of The Orchid Thief. This is worth stressing, because they're calling the film Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story in the US. Presumably that's because nobody in America knows what "A cock and bull story" means, but it might give the impression that it's actually a film version of the novel. And it isn't.

Tristram Shandy is a notoriously unfilmable novel published in nine infurating volumes between 1759 and 1767. Basically, the title character attempts to relate his autobiography, but keeps getting caught up in digressions and never gets round to it. For nine volumes. Although it's now seen as dazzlingly ahead of its time, it was actually very popular in its day, because it's also funny. Of course, readers at the time had the advantage that they too were from the mid-eighteenth century, and didn't have to wade through historical prose to get to the nob gags.

Regardless, the point is that Tristram Shandy is the classic unadapatable novel. A central point of the book is that Tristram just can't find a way of hammering his life into any kind of proper structure, and ends up jumping all over the place in crazily non-linear fashion. The plot is, intentionally, too complicated to properly cover in nine volumes of prose. A ninety minute film, then, ought to be doubly screwed, because even the novel itself is still far too convoluted to reduce to a coherent narrative. And, indeed, in amongst all the flashbacks and flash forwards, we only really get as far as the title character's birth.

After an opening twenty minutes of relatively straight adaptation, the film departs from the book entirely. The rest of the running time is a film about the making of the film. Steve Coogan plays himself playing Tristram Shandy, while Rob Brydon plays himself playing Tristram's uncle Toby. The whole thing swiftly implodes into postmodern chaos when director Michael Winterbottom brings us a scene where Coogan, playing himself, gives a publicity interview to Tony Wilson, playing himself here, but whom Coogan previously played in 24 Hour Party People, also directed by Michael Winterbottom. Then the scene is cut off by a voiceover informing us that the whole interview, along with other exciting extended scenes, will be on the DVD.

There is, however, a plot of sorts. Coogan is fed up with the fact that everyone still associates him with Alan Partridge, years after he stopped doing the character. He's making the film as an obvious bid for credibility, but hasn't actually read the book. Consequently, he's deeply alarmed and threatened to find out that all the most film-friendly bits of the story are about Uncle Toby, and as the script continues to go through rewrites, Rob Brydon is pushing him out of his own star vehicle. Not only that, to raise the money for Rob's battle scene, they end up bringing in a "real star" - and it turns out Coogan is further down the pecking order than Gillian Anderson.

All this is intermittently very funny. Coogan's passive-aggressive paranoia is nicely pitched, and Mark Williams has a great cameo as the man from the historical re-enactment society who gets unduly worked up about minor costume details. Brydon is wonderful as Coogan's infuriatingly charming nemesis, and has a gloriously awful love scene with Anderson (which he plays in the style of Roger Moore). On the other hand, it seems to lose track of the book entirely, and frequently ends up wheeling out a minor character to expound on the significance of scenes which should or should not be included.

Critics love this film. This is understandable. Not only is it different, and arguably experimental, but it's about films. It's exactly the sort of thing film critics love. The breathless adulation of Mark Kermode and his ilk has to be read in that context. It's good, but it's not fantastic. And Adaptation did much the same thing rather more effectively, by remembering to include an ending, even if it was a deliberately awful one.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

New Year's Revolution

Pay per view time again, and this time it's a Raw show. And boy, it's a miserable one.

This show is actually airing on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so it's not a PPV over here. But even then, the line-up is so grim that I'm not sure I can be bothered watching it. Especially considering that, thanks to the miracle of multi-week delays, TNA's Turning Point show is airing on the Wrestling Channel tonight, and by all accounts it's a much better show. So I'm recording this one and I might watch some of it if the reviews are good. Which they probably won't be.

1. WWE Championship, Elimination Chamber match: John Cena -v- Kurt Angle -v- Shawn Michaels -v- Kane -v- Chris Masters -v- Carlito. This is the third time they've done an Elimination Chamber match, and the second time they've done it at New Year's Revolution. They seem to be trying to make it into this show's gimmick, although the jury is still out as to whether the audience cares sufficiently. NYR usually needs all the help it can get, because it's the first of two January shows, and the other one is the Royal Rumble, one of the big four shows of the year. So all the storylines are really working towards that show, and this is a bit of an afterthought. In a more sensible world, they wouldn't bother with this show at all.

The Elimination Chamber is a glorified steel cage. Six men compete, but only two start the match and another one enters every five minutes. Elimination by pinfall or submission, last man in the match wins. Smarter readers will note that this immediately guarantees a match of at least 20 minutes and probably half an hour, which means you need some damn good wrestlers to keep up interest for that long. This match has two such wrestlers - Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle. It also has four other guys. So the real question here is, can two very good wrestlers carry four rather average ones to a compelling main event match? It's not impossible - both guys are able to work around very limited opponents are still produce above average matches. But they've got a real uphill struggle here, and I'm betting that the match will be decent but not great.

John Cena goes into this match as the WWE Champion, still holding the belt that he won back in March. The plan, supposedly, is that he's going to lose to HHH at Wrestlemania 2006 after a mighty one year title reign. (And that's a big deal - nobody's held the title for a whole year since Randy Savage in 1988/9.) The problem is that, despite the WWE's best efforts, crowds are continuing to turn viciously on Cena. But it's not as straightforward as that, because it's really only the men who can't stand him - he continues to get a lot of noticeably high-pitched cheers from the women and kids. And he's still their top merchandise seller. It's a difficult position. I'm coming round to the view that instead of taking the belt off Cena, they should run with what they've got - they've blundered into a tweener champ who splits the crowd passionately. Cena's matches normally have more crowd heat than anything else on the card. It's just a question of harnessing it. Unfortunately, they don't seem to know how.

Anyhow, Cena will almost certainly retain here. Shawn Michaels is just starting a storyline where he's feuding, ludicrously, with company owner Vince McMahon. Vince apparently wants one more match at Wrestlemania, despite being 60 now. He's in good condition for 60, but still, he's 60. And mad. (Not just in character, either - I mean, look at some of the nonsense the company's been broadcasting lately.) Presumably Shawn gets screwed by Vince somehow to further that storyline. He can't possibly win because he's got to go on and feud with Vince, who's far too old to be in a title match.

Everyone else is just there to make up the numbers. Chris Masters and Carlito are baffling inclusions, because they're not credible champions (so everyone knows they won't win), and they're not particularly good wrestlers once the bell rings. Kane is at least semi-credible, but he's not a great wrestler either. And that leaves Angle, who could conceivably win if there's been a major change of plan, but is really just there to help carry the bozo squad. Not much tension here, really.

NYR is a one match show, and this was the one match. And now, the filler...

2. WWE Intercontinental Title: Ric Flair -v- Edge. Remarkaby, Ric Flair has still got the IC Title - because even though he lost his feud with HHH, they did it as a non-title match to avoid saddling HHH with the belt. There is a lot to be said for getting the belt off the elderly Flair at this stage - except Edge is supposed to be nursing World Title ambitions and so it's really beneath him too. Nonetheless, Edge can't possibly afford a loss to Ric Flair at this point in his career, so logic says he ought to win the title here. The storyline, loosely, is that Edge is taunting Flair over his (real life) road rage incident, and Flair can't answer back for legal reasons because of the pending court case. Hence, match. Despite Flair's age, he still puts a decent match together, and on paper this could be okay.

3. WWE Women's Title: Trish Stratus -v- Mickie James. Ah. This, at least, has a reasonably well-developed storyline to it. Nominally, this is a face/face match (two good guys). Trish is the defending champion. Mickie James showed up on Raw a couple of months back and declared herself to be Trish's biggest fan. She's spent most of the time since then puppyishly bouncing around after Trish, who varies between tolerant and slightly unnerved. The story, of course, is that Mickie is gay and has catastrophically misread the signs, leading to the Christmas episode where Mickie turns up with mistletoe and a hopeful expression. Surprisingly, given that it's the WWE, they actually haven't hammered the lesbian angle too much. Presumably somebody is going to turn heel in this match, and chances are it'll be Mickie, who'll develop into a full-blown stalker (which was being strongly hinted at from the word go, before they made any sexual angle explicit). But it's not impossible that they'll go the other route and have Trish go nuts and beat the hell out of her poor, devoted puppydog. Either could work.

The good news is that for once, this is a women's title match with two actual wrestlers involved. The bad news is that one of them is Mickie James, and her matches since joining the main WWE roster have been largely unimpressive. She previously wrestled as Alexis Laree on the indie circuit and in the WWE's feeder league (Ohio Valley Wrestling, which as the name would suggest, is in Kentucky). Her matches in those days were said to be much better. In any event, she desperately needs a good match here to prove that she's just hit a speedbump, because she's certainly not delivered on her reputed potential so far. I'm not optimistic that this is going to be the turnaround for her.

4. Triple H -v- The Big Show. Since Triple H is set to face John Cena at Wrestlemania, he can't exactly lose to him in the main event here. So instead he's fighting one half of the tag champions in a "something to do for the January show" match. Given that there's no real story to this beside the fact that they don't like one another, audiences have been surprisingly receptive, so they might actually get something out of it. The big angle is that HHH has broken the Big Show's hand with a sledgehammer, but the Big Show can now use his massive plastercast as a weapon instead. (In wrestling logic, it apparently doesn't hurt to punch people with your broken hand as long as it's in a plastercast.) On the other hand, it means he can't do his usual finishing move, because he needs his right hand for that.

Such storylines did big business 25 years ago, but it's desperately old-school for 2006. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, since the WWE could do with remembering some of the fundamentals. Obviously, HHH is winning here - he can't lose when he's about to challenge for the title, besides which he's the boss's son-in-law and almost never loses anyway. The injury angle is just to protect Big Show and leave the way clear for a later rematch after he's "healed" - it gives Triple H a natural title defence for the spring. Probably an above average match but I suspect it'll go 5-10 minutes too long (Triple H does like to have very long matches) and end up a bit boring. Besides which, I don't really like either of these guys and have no desire to see them anyway.

5. Gregory Helms -v- Jerry Lawler. Bizarre filler match. Gregory Helms used to be the Hurricane until he disavowed the gimmick a few months ago. They then did literally nothing with him, not even establishing a new character. In fact, he barely even appeared on the show. This match was set up with Helms doing a video promo on the WWE website complaining, for no immediately obvious reason, that Jerry Lawler was scheming against him to keep him off the show. Since Lawler is the colour commentator, it's less than obvious why he would care, let alone be able to effect such a result. Lawler's prime is way in the past - that would be the time he was feuding with Andy Kaufman - but he's not actually retired and still wrestles regularly in his home town of Memphis. Given time these two might have an okay match, since Helms is actually a very talented wrestler, and Lawler still knows his stuff. But I suspect it'll be too short for that. The only sane result is for Helms to win - if he loses to a commentator then it's a total burial - but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen, because with the way he's being booked, Helms is clearly out of favour for some reason.

6. Ahem... "Bra and panties gauntlet match" (dear god): Ashley -v- Maria -v- Torrie Wilson -v- Victoria -v- Candice Michelle. Last woman not stripped to her underwear is the winner. Obviously, this is the sort of embarrassingly misogynist T&A segment that gives wrestling a bad name, and given that the average male viewer is considerably older than 13, you have to wonder who they think is going to buy a PPV to see this. You could buy a lot of copies of Zoo for the price of this show, after all. On top of that, the WWE might want to reflect that their biggest merchandise seller is John Cena, and his fanbase would appear to be women and kids.

It's basically the bimbo squadron, although poor Victoria will be in there to try and hold it together in some form. It'll be awful, and the best to be said for it is that they'll probably stick it on before the main event to provide a break between two very long matches. It doesn't matter in the slightest who wins, barring a real upset (such as backstage interviewer Maria suddenly kicking everyone's ass). For what it's worth, either Victoria or Ashley ought to win here, since they're at least being portrayed as semi-credible wrestlers - Ashley isn't, but that's how they're trying to portay her.

Overall, not a very enthralling card. The main event will have to be sold on the gimmick, since there's only two good workers out of six, and I don't see them being able to get a great match out of the situation. The two women's matches will probably be bad. The other three matches are above average on paper, but ultimately pretty missable. If this was a PPV in the UK, I certainly wouldn't be buying it - since it isn't, I might give it a look, but I don't expect to sit down and watch the whole thing.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Celebrity Big Brother 2006

I love the launch night of Celebrity Big Brother. I usually lose interest in the show itself almost immediately, but the launch night is invariably compelling.

Ordinary people (well, semi-ordinary) go onto Big Brother to become famous. Celebrities (well, mildly prominent people) go onto Celebrity Big Brother, generally speaking, to cling by their fingertips to the last vestiges of a fading career. There's something surreally tragic about it. A bunch of vaguely prominent people locked in a big room, asking themselves: How famous am I? Am I still famous enough? Shows like this give them the miserable answer: You are as famous as Kenzie from Blazin' Squad. Look, he's right over there. You're on his level.

Last year we had a gloriously idiotic array of the nearly famous. They've been claiming a slightly more famous line-up this year. We shall see. Casting has been a problem with Big Brother lately - for the 2005 run, they filled the house with people they thought would cause conflict, but that just meant there was nobody sympathetic for the audience to root for. You don't need truly famous or A-list celebrities for these shows to work. You just need interesting personalities who people are vaguely curious about.

9.07. Tour of the house completed. They've added more indoor stuff because, obviously, the celebrities are hardly going to hang around the outdoor pool in England in January. This year's twist: there's a member of the public going in as contestant #11. Their job is to convince the rest of the housemates that they're a celebrity too. Given the quality of celebrity seen on a lot of these shows, that shouldn't be too hard. ("I have a show on Living TV.")

Okay, here we go.

#1. Chantelle is our non-celebrity. She's a model, and she's being presented as a dimwit Essex girl. I hate her already. They're telling her to be a pop singer from a girl band called Kandyfloss. This girl doesn't strike me as a born improviser. She's being set up to fail.

#2. Michael Barrymore. Oh fuck, the reports were right. Michael Barrymore has been off TV - and indeed out of the country - ever since his career as a family entertainer was brought down by scandal a few years back. And we're talking bigtime scandal. Not many people come back after a man is found dead in their swimming pool after an impromptu party. With high levels of drugs and alcohol in his blood. Oh, and widely-reported "anal injuries." Barrymore has been, at best, a tragic figure ever since, and he filed for bankruptcy a couple of years back. This is a blatant bid for rehabilitation. It could be seriously awkward. He is, nonetheless, certainly very famous. Although no longer for the right reasons.

#3. Pete Burns. Now this is more their level. Actually, no, it's probably below that. Pete Burns is a bizarre individual who has squandered his fortune (such as it was) on disturbing, semi-transsexual reconstructive surgery. He was the lead singer of Dead or Alive, who had a hit in the 1980s. He long since drifted out of the category of "celebrity" into "walking freak", and he's not even that prominent in that field. He presumably needs the money to cover his medical bills. Mind you, he's indisputably an interesting personality, if an obviously damaged one.

#4. Traci Bingham. Yes, we're scraping the barrel now. Traci's claim to fame is that she was in Baywatch. Which was... when? (Checks IMDB.) 1996-8. She's already done The Surreal Life and Celebrity Boot Camp. She's doesn't seem to have had any significant acting roles in years. She's clearly a professional minor celebrity, although by this point it's conceivable that she might just be running with the easy money rather than deluding herself that she still has a proper career. In which case, she might be one of the better adjusted people on the show.

#5. One of the lesser members of Goldie Lookin' Chain. Be honest, you don't know the names either. "I'm doing Big Brother because I've got nothing else to do in January." GLC are basically a comedy act and have sold enough records that, as a group, they have a fair claim to celebrity status. As individuals, they don't. They're the sort of people who could claim they were doing this show for a laugh and be believed. He introduces himself to the others as "Maggot from Goldie Lookin' Chain. Just here to make the numbers up, mate." Don't fool yourselves, fellow housemates. You are as famous as Maggot from Goldie Lookin' Chain. Behold your station in life, staring you in the face.

#6. Rula Lenska. Thirty years past her sell-by date, but undeniably famous in her prime. Last year, she starred in Gypo, the first British Dogma film. (I reviewed it back in the Film Festival stuff.) Point is, she still does genuine acting work, and hasn't shown much previous interest in clinging on to her celebrity status. She may well genuinely be doing this for the charity element.

#7. Jodie Marsh. Okay, she's genuinely famous. Not for doing anything worthwhile - she's a model, ex-stripper and general tabloid fodder - but she is famous. "I think the British public think that I am a slapper, a bimbo..." Yup, that's a fair assessment of her image. She claims she's doing it to try and break out of her public image. To be fair, I can believe that that's one reason why she's doing it. She's certainly far enough up the tabloid pecking order that she doesn't need to be here, so it may well be a PR exercise. The question is, will people like the real Jodie Marsh? A legitimate celebrity, anyway, so they can be proud of signing her up.

#8. Dennis Rodman. Ooh, somebody for Traci Bingham to talk to. They must have thrown money at this guy. He's way out of their normal league - which is to say, he's a bigger star than Maggot from Goldie Lookin' Chain. On the other hand, as a basketball player, he's not really as famous in Britain as he is in America. So they must be banking on him being an entertaining personality. Dennis has previously been on Celebrity Mole, so he's evidently lowering his standards a bit. Hell, he was in WCW for a while...

#9. Faria Alam. Not a celebrity. Had an affair with the manager of the England football team and the chairman of the FA. Sold her story to the press. Is clearly trying to cash in on her moment of quasi-fame. The token obvious villain. Seems to hope that this is going to make her famous, but as what?! The crowd boo her. Well, who wouldn't?

Two to go. I'm hoping for Charles Kennedy.

#10. The lead singer of the Ordinary Boys. The fuck? This guy fronts an indie band on the rise. This is the last thing he needs to do, careerwise. It's an absurd credibility-killer. He's obviously conscious of that but just seems to be a fan of the show who really wants to be on it. I honestly can't think of a cynical reason for him to be here, so I guess that might well be it. How strange. He seems a nice lad, actually.

Incidentally, there's no earthly way Chantelle is going to convince two currently active band members that she's in a successful girl band they've never heard of.

#11. George Galloway.

[rubs eyes]

#11. George Galloway. Where do you start with this guy? He's right about many of his criticisms of the war, which encourages people to overlook his very questionable history of support for dictators. He was my MP when I lived in Glasgow and he was in Labour. Never liked him. This is a publicity stunt for his minority party, obviously, and probably a serious miscalculation. The crowd boos him, which is a little surprising, since his video package wasn't particularly hostile, and he's normally quite the populist. He's certainly a coup for the show.

A bizarre mix this year. A handful of high profile B-listers. A bunch of tragic hangers-on. A couple of nobodies. And the lead singer of the Ordinary Boys, who must be out of his mind. Oh, and Chantelle from Essex. They're appropriately mismatched, so there's potential here if they don't screw it up by trying too hard to generate conflict. Which is what they normally do.

Derren Brown: The Heist

Christ almighty, what unalloyed bullshit.

Derren Brown is a problematic figure if ever there was one. American viewers may not be familiar with his schtick. Here's how he describes himself:-

Derren Brown is a unique force in the world of illusion - he can seemingly predict and control human behaviour.

He doesn't claim to be a mind-reader, instead he describes his craft as a mixture of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.

Whatever you choose to call it, his unparalleled performances amaze and unsettle all those who watch him. This is a powerful and provocative form of entertainment, unlikely to be imitated for a long while.

In other words, he's a magician. He calls himself a "psychological illusionist." But Brown has always played down the magic and played up the psychology. He claims to be able to influence behaviour and read subconscious cues through his mastery of NLP techniques. If pushed, he might possibly concede that he makes those claims as part of his act - but that's not the way he generally presents it. Brown's unique selling point is his seemingly remarkable skills of psychological manipulation, skills which he claims anybody could learn.

The remarkable thing is that by presenting all this in a totally naturalistic way, Brown has actually convinced a large segment of the public that his abilities are for real. In many ways this is a very clever and remarkable extension of the original principles of stage magic. You imply that the trick is being done in one way, and that means the audience won't be looking when you actually do perform the trick (usually some time before they even started looking). In a similar way, by convincing people that he's using Incredible Psychological Techniques, Brown gets away with doing the same old parlour tricks that mentallists have been doing for centuries.

Lest there be any doubt: these techniques do not exist. Neuro-linguistic programming is a far vaguer science than Brown makes out. Save for a few minor things he throws in for credibility, it is not possible to achieve Brown's feats using any techniques known to science. That only leaves two possibilties. One, Derren Brown is decades ahead of mainstream science, thanks to his superhuman powers of insight. Two, Derren Brown is a bullshitter, who throws in the odd reference to "magic" and "illusion" and claims to use psychological rather than psychic abilities, but is ultimately just a 21st century Uri Geller.

This was relatively harmless when he was just using it as a framing device for magical tricks, although even then there was a good argument that he was crossing the line into dishonesty. In The Heist, Brown claims to use subliminal influence to make law-abiding citizens attempt an armed robbery. This subliminal influence includes heavy use of the colour green, the usual gibberish about word choice, and so forth. At no point is anyone shown being actually asked to perform an armed robbery. The conceit is that as they walk down the road and are presented with the same triggers, they spontaneously decided to attempt an armed robbery.

And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Brown has been caught in outright hoaxes before, when he claimed to be playing Russian roulette on live TV. This too was utter nonsense, but ultimately it was a standard magic trick dressed up as something more. But The Heist bothers me. The only way to achieve this is to hire a bunch of actors and fake the whole thing. (In any event there's no way the police would co-operate in doing it for real, since all four participants would promptly be arrested for attempted robbery.)

The thing is, this isn't even a trick. There's no underlying illusion being dressed up in a dodgy way. This is just an entire hour devoted to hoaxing the public as a whole, and building the myth of Derren Brown, Evil Superman. And that troubles me enormously. It's not a satire, it's not a trick - at best it's some sort of experiment to see what the idiot public will believe if a compliant TV channel allows you to promote yourself in a particular way over a period of years. And really, is that such an achievement?