Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Apprentice

The Apprentice has probably passed its sell-by date on American television by now, but the BBC is only just embarking on season 2 of its version. When the UK edition was first announced, with the unlikely substitution of Sir Alan Sugar for Donald Trump, I was sceptical. Sir Alan is undoubtedly rich and successful, but he is not showy or ostentatious in the same way as Trump. Nobody would describe Amstrad as a glamorous corporation - least of all Sir Alan himself, who spent much of season one staring in disbelief at candidates who seemed to think they were joining ICI.

But, much to my surprise, The Apprentice worked out rather nicely. As with the excellent Dragon's Den, it turned out to be an example of the BBC's public service ethic at its best - harness all the conventionals of reality TV and use them to genuinely explain something about business.

The differences between the British and American editions have always been fascinating in themselves. American readers will be thrilled to learn that the BBC has posted the whole first episode online (the link is top right), allowing them to compare for themselves. Note how the BBC couldn't bring themselves to hire fourteen calendar models, and have actually selected people who you might actually encounter in the real world. Note also that the BBC flatly refuses to engage in the mildly insulting practice of using the candidates as narrators by getting them to read out "interview" segments describing what's happening, and instead has recourse to the voice-of-authority narrator.

There is, admittedly, a token attempt to sell the winner's prospective lifestyle as lavish and magnificent. This is slightly undercut by the fact that only a few days earlier, they aired a documentary about last year's winner, which gave a rather more realistic account of what he does for a living. The deal, it turns out, is that you do indeed get a real job at Amstrad, with genuine responsibility and your own projects to look after. You also get a guaranteed £100K salary for the first year. Since Sir Alan was clearly free to get rid of Tim after that year, and mentioned at one point that, obviously, Tim wasn't really worth £100K because of his relative inexperience, I rather imagine that Tim was kept on at a more realistic salary. We also saw that he's still living in the same house with the wife and kiddie, and has been working seven day weeks. Don't get me wrong - it's a genuinely excellent prize if you're looking to get into that line of work, but let's not fool ourselves that it's especially glamorous.

(That said, the one area where the BBC have been notably willing to fudge things for dramatic purposes is the nature of the prize. In reality, for example, last year's runner-up Saira was also hired by Amstrad, and both her and Tim worked at the company for several months before Sir Alan rendered his final decision. None of this really undermines the legitimacy of the contest, which never claimed to be anything more than Sir Alan's personal choice based on the skills demonstrated, or the genuineness of the prize, which effectively consists in being paid massively over the odds for your level of experience and getting your foot in the door at a well known company. But it was all very much skated over in the broadcast version.)

Otherwise, the British basically follow the format of the Americans, and have even been known to recycle tasks. Since Sir Alan is naturally far too busy to pay attention to these bozos himself, he has his loyal henchmen to do it for him. A skim of their official bios suggests that they're genuinely long-term advisers of his, who are both recently retired, thus explaining why they have so much time to contribute to this exercise. Margaret Mountford has always struck me as somebody who must send the producers into paroxysms, since she simply doesn't have the intimidating look that central casting asked for. But Nick Hewer is a godsend, thanks to his permanent expression of tongue-biting disbelief.

While the Americans all seem to want to aspire to the gloried condition of Trumphood, Sir Alan has no truck with gold-plated, blinged-out penthouses and has ended up creating a subtly but significantly different show, still peddling a vision of self-made success, but one that at least seems passably grounded in the real world. This is a show for people who aspire to be... well, Sir Alan Sugar. Which might not be glamorous, but will still make you very, very rich, so stop complaining.

Of course, most of us don't want to be Sir Alan Sugar, and I for one have written a living will requesting that I be put down if I should turn into Donald Trump. This doesn't matter, because our hook for this show is the prospect of seeing the really gratingly annoying contestants get publicly humiliated. Usually, after two or three of them have emerged as utterly appalling, others start to seem like saints in comparison and begin to gain audience sympathy. (Such as Tim and, to a lesser extent, Miriam last year. I have strong suspicions that Saira made it to the last two because, as a frequently pushy and irritating woman, she could serve as a de facto villain for the final episode.) In the meantime, we learn some valuable Reithian lessons about the world of business. Well, a bit.

The big problem for the producers in the first couple of weeks is that the format gives them an insane number of characters to introduce - fourteen contestants in total. There's obviously no way you can properly cover them all in the first week, and the producers' answer is simply not to try. Instead, and luckily for them, the girls team provides a genuinely interesting controversy with their approach to the first task. Personally, I'm on their side on this one, although it's a strategically silly move when you consider that the aim of the game is ultimately just to impress Sir Alan Sugar, rather than to win or lose individual tasks.

Meanwhile, they focus on the stand-out figures, most of whom are gloriously hateful. It's notable that in all the introductory vox-pops, when everyone is talking about how driven and talented and successful they are, only Karen uses the word "arrogant" and seems to recognise how annoying everyone must sound when they deliver these speeches. They've been asked the direct question, of course, but there are tactful ways of responding and Karen seems to be the only one who bothered to apply her mind to it.

Syed is clearly marked down as this season's version of Paul, the wideboy salesman with slightly dodgy ethics and a petulant inability to cope with rejection of his ideas. Except Paul's ideas at least tended to be good. Syed's attempt to convince his teammates to name themselves "The A-Team" is painfully hilarious, especially as nobody can bring themselves to tell him what a terrible idea it is, and they just keep changing the subject in the hope that he'll give up. It's British politeness at its ineffectual worst, and it's worth watching the show for that alone.

Look out also for Jo, the disturbingly over-emotional child-woman who doesn't have a hope in hell of winning, and whose body language seems stuck at the level of an eight-year-old appearing in the team introductions for We Are The Champions. After only thirty seconds of watching her, I already had a powerful impulse to see her drowned in a sack, and by the end of the episode I strongly suspected Sir Alan felt likewise. She's going to make for compelling reality TV.

The skill of good reality TV is to hook people with the schadenfreude and then make them care about seeing somebody win. The Apprentice, filmed in dutiful BBC2-style and equipped with a vaguely public-service theme, is clearly hoping to be the reality TV show that middle-class families with five dictionaries feel okay about watching. But it's also a damn good, if unusually de-glammed, example of the genre in its own right.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

No Way Out 2006

Time for another pay per view. This one's on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so I don't have to pay for it. Which, as we'll see, is fortunate. There's some damned odd stuff on this card, one match which is genuinely uncomfortable to contemplate, and an all-pervading sense of last-minute panic. As with a lot of recent WWE shows, the backstage insanity - sometimes literal - is frequently much more compelling than the actual programming. Indeed, for a lot of fans, the main reason to watch the shows is to ensure a full understanding of the gossip.

No Way Out is a Smackdown-only show, and we're now firmly into the lead-in to Wrestlemania, always the biggest show of the year. Unfortunately, through a combination of injuries to major performers and dementedly poor writing, plans are not very far advanced - and those plans that exist are often strikingly odd. As we shall see...

1. World Heavyweight Title: Kurt Angle -v- The Undertaker. Kurt Angle was parachuted onto Smackdown to fill the gap left when Dave Batista had to take months off for shoulder surgery. (Surgery which was filmed and broadcast on TV in full meaty detail, just in case anyone thought that this was a storyline of some sort.) He's also nursing some fairly serious injuries which appear to be limiting him quite badly, but Angle doesn't believe in medical advice, so he's ploughing on regardless. Unless sanity or physical incapacity intervene, the plan is for Angle to remain as champion through to Wrestlemania. They don't actually have anything for him to do this month, so instead they've just wheeled out the Undertaker as a big name opponent and left it at that. There's no storyline here and it's really just a filler match.

I've never been a big fan of the Undertaker and his silly zombie gimmick, but he's had reasonably good matches with Angle in the past. But Angle is suffering, and last month's match against Mark Henry was one of the worst pay per view matches he's ever had . Granted, Mark Henry is terrible, but Angle wasn't looking too good either. He'll do better with Undertaker, who has more range, but I'll be surprised if this makes it much above average.

(Incidentally, these guys have two of the best entrance videos on the roster, if only in the sense of hammering home the character in the first ten seconds. As always, just click on the names to see them.)

2. World Heavyweight Title, #1 contender: Rey Mysterio v Randy Orton. This is the real main event, in terms of having a big storyline behind it. Winner headlines Wrestlemania as the challenger for the title. But it's also far and away the dodgiest, and undoubtedly the weirdest, match on the card.

Rey Mysterio already won the right to headline Wrestlemania by winning the annual Royal Rumble battle royal in January. He's a tiny Mexican wrestler playing the classic role of underdog hero. Rey has, for purposes of this story, dedicated his career and the upcoming Wrestlemania match to the memory of his (genuinely) close friend, the late Eddie Guerrero, who died of heart failure last year. Orton, as the up-and-coming bad guy, has provoked Mysterio into putting his title shot on the line by repeatedly defiling Guerrero's memory, starting from a remarkably tasteless scene where he tried to murder the Undertaker with Eddie Guerrero's car (broadcast around a fortnight after Guerrero's sudden death), and leading up to a recent segment where he informed the audience at length that Guerrero was burning in hell.

All of this has gone down rather badly backstage, but the McMahon family think it's a great idea. The logic is that by exploiting Guerrero's death for his cynical ends, Orton will be established as a massive villain. But the WWE seem to have missed the point that Guerrero really is dead, and that by exploiting his death to boost pay-per-view buyrates, they're essentially doing the same thing that's supposed to make Orton a villain. Hardcore fans are, for the most part, appalled by the whole thing. The live crowds seem to be rather more receptive, for some reason, although the jury is still out on whether this is really going to draw money.

Now, you may be wondering what the problem is. After all, this looks like a fairly classic wrestling story. Orton is an asshole, the hero challenges him and emerges triumphant, and Rey then goes on to triumph at Wrestlemania in a touching tribute to his late friend. Right? Right?

Er... wrong. Because the WWE don't have faith in Rey to headline Wrestlemania. So the plan, bizarrely, is that he will lose this match, and Orton will proceed cheerfully to face Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania. There is no fairy-tale pay-off planned. The whole thing is just to make Orton more of a villain.

At one point the plan was for Guerrero's widow and children to be at ringside. Cooler heads seem to have prevailed on that point, and the Guerrero family will now be represented by widow Vicky and nephew Chavo (who is under WWE contract and can't refuse, but is reputedly far from happy about the whole storyline). Given the history, I'm expecting a reasonably good match marred by tasteless exploitation of a dead guy at every opportunity - look out for Rey trying to do Eddie's signature moves, for example. Technically, it might not be bad, but I don't expect to enjoy watching it. In fact, if this were a PPV, this match alone would be enough to put me off buying it.

The WWE, by the way, like to claim that Eddie Guerrero would have been delighted to see his name used in storylines after his death. Not surprisingly, nobody has been able to trace any recorded comment by Guerrero stating his views on the subject. He did, however, refuse on several occasions to participate in storylines exploiting the death of his long-time tag team partner Art Barr, which he considered to be a tacky idea. This rather suggests he would not have been thrilled.

3. US Title: Booker T v Chris Benoit. Or, "Is this feud still going?" Booker T and Chris Benoit have been fighting over the US title for months now. The storyline was originally meant to end with the Best of 7 series a while back, but that ended in total confusion when Booker was legitimately injured halfway through the series and the last few matches were won by Randy Orton on his behalf. This will be Booker's first match back after injury, and the first time he's actually defended the US title. I can only assume this match is intended to finally draw a line under this unintentionally extended storyline, in which case either Benoit is winning, or he's going to be screwed out of the title by a third party and can move on to feud with him. Conventionally the hero wins to end the storyline, but Booker as defending champion probably has more possibilities. The match will be good, but we've seen these two so many times now that it's no longer a fresh pairing.

Incidentally, there's a token stipulation in place that Booker forfeits the title if he doesn't wrestle the match, but since they established on Friday that he's fit, I can't see that coming into play.

4. JBL v Bobby Lashley. Former champion JBL has been on a losing streak of late, to such a degree that some have wondered whether he's done something to piss off management. Equally likely is that there's just no room for him at the top of the card right now, and the time has come to cash in some of his accumulated credibility by letting younger guys beat him. Last month it was the Boogeyman, which was faintly silly, but this month it's Bobby Lashley, which is more reasonable. Conventional wisdom is that Lashley has plenty of talent but not nearly enough experience, and really ought to be back down in the training league OVW for the moment. Nonetheless, they're trying to build him as a star, so the sensible result is for him to win here (unless JBL wins on a monumental screwjob to set up a rematch, which would also be acceptable). JBL winning clean would achieve nothing and damage Lashley.

A more interesting question is the quality of the match. This is the first time Lashley's really been put in there with a top guy and expected to do a full-length singles match instead of just annihilating his opponent inside five minutes. I think these two could potentially have a good match, and their styles ought to be compatible - both power wrestlers with reasonable speed. The big question mark is whether Lashley is ready, and we won't really know that until Sunday. I'm cautiously optimistic here.

5. WWE Cruiserweight Title: Gregory Helms v Kid Kash v Psicosis v Super Crazy v Nunzio v Paul London v Brian Kendrick v Scotty 2 Hotty v Funaki. A last-minute filler match and a classic example of nobody thinking things through. In fact, you have to slog through even to find out what the rules are here (first pinfall takes it, but half the time these things are elimination matches).

The story, such as it is, is that Gregory Helms won the Cruiserweight Title at the Royal Rumble in January and immediately jumped to the Smackdown roster to defend it. As an arrogant outsider, everyone hates him. Helms insists that he can beat any of the other Cruiserweights, which somehow leads to him defending the title against eight of them at once. Since Kid Kash and Nunzio are the only other heels here, and even they don't like him, the obvious implication is that he's facing virtually certain defeat.

This is a bad idea for several reasons. Helms is a villain, so what's the point of putting him in a match where he's at an unfair disadvantage? That's what you do to the good guys. If he wins, he triumphs over adversity and therefore doesn't get over as a heel. Worse, he squashes all of his possible contenders and the rest of the roster look like chumps. If he loses, on the other hand, then a new champion is crowned in a match so screwy that it won't mean anything (even by Cruiserweight division standards, which are low to start with). It's utterly pointless. The action could be quite good if they're allowed to go nuts, which is debatable in itself. But I suspect it'll be the usual ending for these things, where Helms steals a win after everyone else has beaten one another to the ground, and nothing is really achieved.

Incidentally, the only Cruiserweights not in this match are Daivari (primarily a manager), Rey Mysterio (competes with the heavyweights) and Jamie Noble (haven't a clue). Oh, and congratulations to Scotty 2 Hotty, looking remarkably well preserved for a man now entering his sixteenth calendar year with the WWE, and surely the last man on the roster still sporting an entry video with shots of the Smackdown Ovaltron that hasn't been seen in about four years. Come to think of it, Sho Funaki's been doing his comedy Japanese act for a decade or so, as well...

6. WWE Tag Team Titles: MNM v Matt Hardy & ????. Thrown together at the last minute, this looks suspiciously like a last-minute re-write. Two weeks ago, MNM's manager Melina invited Matt Hardy to join the stable. This week, for no apparent reason, Matt suddenly accepts MNM's standing open challenge (which I don't recall ever previously existing) and declares that he will fight them for their tag team titles on Sunday, with a partner to be announced.

If this was the original plan then I have no idea where they're heading with it. There's not much point doing "mystery partner" angles with so little build-up, so I suspect they may genuinely not have decided yet. However, there is supposed to be a plan in the works to pair Matt with Road Warrior Animal - who needs a partner, because they fired John Heidenreich, and Animal can't wrestle singles matches for insurance reasons. They may be trying to vaguely hint at Matt's brother Jeff, who is a free agent again after being released by TNA, but given his perennial problems with timekeeping, motivation and generally showing up for work, I doubt the WWE would be that interested.

I have a suspicion that Matt's winning here, in which case he's finally served his time as a perennial loser and, in typical WWE style, is going to get a proper push just as they've finally killed off any credibility he had. When Matt Hardy decided to rejoin the WWE rather than sign with TNA, many argued that he was making a very bad career move, and that he would be stranded in the midcard forever in the WWE when he could be a top star with the number two promotion. This theory has now been put to the test, after another long-suffering WWE midcarder, Christian, allowed his contract to lapse and jumped ship. Christian duly won their world title and, with the promotion about to get a primetime slot in April on the WWE's old network, it looks very much as though he made the right call. And Matt Hardy didn't.

On the other hand... the WWE do pay better, and TNA isn't really a full-time job. This is a positive boon for Christian, who's also trying to get into acting, but not so great if you just want to wrestle, because you'll end up topping up your income by working the indie circuit. So hey, maybe things turned out alright for Matt after all. Regardless, the WWE have stubbornly ignored the fan support for Matt for months now, and he's long overdue for a push.

Overall: six matches announced, of which none are bad on paper, and some have real potential. But the whole Eddie Guerrero deal leaves such a bad taste in my mouth that I wouldn't spend money on it. As it happens, I don't have to, but that's the only reason I'll be watching.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The IT Crowd

The IT Crowd is Channel 4's great sitcom hope for 2006. We're now three episodes into its run - they aired the first two back-to-back last week - and the opening ratings weren't quite as spectacular as they might have wished. In part, that might be due to the radical promotional technique of putting every single episode up, in full, on the Channel 4 website a week in advance. (You can currently watch all of episode 4 if you want. I haven't.) Obviously intended to build word of mouth, it may have proved counterproductive.

Expectations were high for this show because it has a great pedigree. It's got the same producer as The Office, which doesn't really mean anything because Ricky Gervais was the driving force behind that show, but hell, it sounds good. And it's written by Graham Linehan, who co-wrote the genuinely brilliant Father Ted and the never-seen-the-big-deal-myself-but-lots-of-other-people-seem-to-like-it Black Books. Of course, his back catalogue also includes Hippies, which didn't quite work, and Paris, which has been erased from the collective consciousness. But he's undoubtedly a great comedy writer, so anything he produces is always worth a look.

The IT Crowd is, quite unashamedly, a reaction against the trend of realistically depressing comedy which has dominated in the last few years. Aside from the technicality of actually being set in an office, it's as far away from The Office as you could possibly get. It's shot on three-walled sets in front of a studio audience, which in British TV is considered so backwards that it's actually become daring again. It isn't determined to remind you how much life and humanity suck. It's surreal, in much the same way that Linehan's scripts tend to be - characters exaggerated to such a degree that we're effectively dealing with living cartoons. Father Ted is a pretty good reference point.

It is, essentially, a sitcom which sets out to make people happy. This may seem unsurprising to American readers, but British comedy producers are in love with the Comedy of Excruciating Misery. Perhaps the biggest surprise here, in fact, is the odd casting of Chris Morris as the boss. While never exactly a grim realist, his output tends towards unsettlingly dark surrealism or scorched-earth satire. It's truly weird seeing him playing a character who's merely demented in a conventional comedy manner.

As with all the best sitcoms, the set-up is minimal. Father Ted got by entirely on the premise "Three priests on an island." The IT Crowd is "three people who work in IT." The building is supposed to be insanely glamorous and (by implication) the home to a much more exciting sort of programme. But they're in IT, so they're banished to the basement and left to get on with it. It's as good a premise as any.

And yet something doesn't quite click about it. It's actually harder to identify with these characters than with some of the people in Linehan's earlier, even sillier sitcoms. Moss is a particular problem - defined as the stereotypical ubernerd, he never really does anything to develop beyond that stereotype. To be fair, Linehan likes to set up characters who are very strongly defined by a single idea and then fill them out over subsequent episodes, but Moss doesn't seem to be anything beyond the obvious.

Roy, the relatively normal IT guy, doesn't have quite the same problem. He's dysfunctional in a more rounded way. But Jen, the department head who bluffed her way into the job despite knowing nothing about it, is a weird character. On one level, she's the classic character with pretensions trying to climb the social ladder, and that's a set-up which has worked for comedy since Steptoe & Son. But she also keeps lapsing into self-consciously girly behaviour. Devoting most of episode two to her obsession with shoes was probably a mistake, since it plays up the least original aspects of the character.

Then again, episode three worked better for her with an endearingly contorted plot based on the singularly unlikely idea of Jen getting a date with an attractive security guard by impressing him with her (bluffed) knowledge of classical music, only to give him the wrong answer when he phones her as a lifeline on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, meaning that she has to go on a date with him the next day after she's just cost him £31,000. Nonsense, obviously, but it makes a certain kind of internal sense. Mind you, it also flags up a noticeable problem with dated references - Millionaire is well past its sell-by date, and episode 1 even referenced the unisex toilets from Ally McBeal, which is getting on for a decade ago.

It's often genuinely funny, but it hasn't yet lived up to the (admittedly high) expectations generated by the names involved. Then again, a lot of Linehan characters seem better the more you see of them, as subtler aspects come to light, so maybe these earlier episodes will look stronger in retrospect by the time we've seen the whole series. I'm sticking with it, but I'm hoping it's still going to hit its stride.