Saturday, April 17, 2010

Not The Sharpest Tool

Adapting foreign television games shows for a New Zealand audience proved fertile soil for producers here in the 80s and 90s, with Krypton Factor, Sale Of The Century and Wheel Of Fortune all serving as family favourites; the latter two were also developed into board games, amounting to little more than poorly made tart-ups of Trivial Pursuit: Genus Edition and Hangman, in exchange for coupons for consumer goods. Both sat neglected, alongside local anomalies Kiwi SportsMania and Poleconomy in the games cupboard. So it followed that the reality television boom of the past decade would be given a zero-budget local refit and sold to the lowest denominator. High production values are out of the question, so you lose Real World, Big Brother and Amazing Race straight out of the gate. Incidentally, The Amazing Race has been hosted since it’s inception by ex-pat NZer Phil Keoghan who, in 1990, was working as a presenter on after school TV escapade 3.45 Live, the same year Nick Tansley hosted the only televised season of Treasure Hunt, featuring couples negotiating the country in a helicopter solving clues. Coincidence? But cheap Polynesian versions on a Survivor/Treasure Island theme can be knocked out relatively easily and there are more than enough C-List media whores (to populate dancing contests) and bored housewives (with inept DIY husbands). And that about sums up New Zealand’s weight class.

Occasionally you think they get the downsizing ratio just right, like New Zealand’s Hottest Home Baker as a small town / small time franchise of Master Chef, and I still have high hopes for Savage’s (sub)urban “fish-out-of-water” saga Hip Hop High. But I love watching the trainwreck when ambition wins out over reality, and we get treated to generous helpings of televisual pudding like New Zealand Idol, New Zealand’s Next Top Model and The Apprentice: New Zealand. Pretending there is a market for manufactured pop stars and high-end catwalk models in this country is endearing its own way, but the façade of penthouse-suite corporate power suits – in Wellington – is easily the masterstroke. Right now, a sausage sizzle is firing up outside 721 Fifth Avenue, New York. Surely. I'm not suggesting producers be put off developing other people's concepts in lieu of a genuine brainwave themselves, not at all, but that someone really, really make a local version of ...

Tool Academy.

In the many and varied world of race-to-the-bottom reality programming, this show reigns supreme right now. It's not the most entertaining, or the most cringeworthy, or the most lucrative, but there is also a lack of guilt associated with the indulgence of watching it, because all the contestants are fucking retarded. Three seasons have run in the U.S, and in each twelve 'Tools' are duped into thinking they're going to be party kings, but instead are being taking into televised couples counselling. This ruse somehow continues to be effective beyond the first season. Incredible. Credit to the show, though, they go beyond the classic archetypes on repeat model of casting of The Real World, and get quite creative with their pigeonholing, evidenced by the line-ups in Seasons One and Two. Overheads are low. There are no big prizes or elaborate challenges, just the Tools, their partners, and the soothing voice of the counsellor/judge/jury/executioner, who for authoritative reasons in the U.S is played by stern Briton Trina Dolenz. Here in New Zealand, they should probably just use Mary Lambie. She was fantastic in The Weakest Link. As for local villainy, many of the originals are Universal, but it would be remiss to exlude Bogan Tools, Black Power Tools and Sexually Repressed Through Colonial Overhang Tools.

The novelty of seeing New Zealand's Bad Bad Boyfriends scrapping it out for airtime and public humilation/redemption pales is dwarfed, however, by the potential of Tool Academy to branch out into the Celebrity Edition. The cult of celebrity, and the sense of ownership the tabloid buying public seems to claim, has ben on the up and up for a while, demanding exemplary behaviour of these perceived immortals who live in the Public Domain. If I sat outside your window and took photos of you getting undressed, I would most likely be arrested. If you make films or music for a living, I would be considered a valid news source. And when the celebrity falls, oh how the opinions fly, the fame-whores emerge, and the public demands their pound of flesh. So why not do it in the most public, most heavily edited, most controlled, most ridiculous forum possible: Celebrity Tool Academy, with Tiger Woods (Texting Tool), Silvio Berlusconi (Prime Ministerial Tool) and Jesse James (Grand Wizard Tool) all making solid contemporary candidates. Public humiliation is the only satisfying catharsis for the modern media zeitgeist, and the sooner they realise this the better.


David Large said...

The secret is, I guess, that most reality shows that aren't nominally about tools are all about the tools. Infamy has become, to the best of tools, synonymous with fame.

With the benefit of hindsight and a tendency towards Fisher's narrative paradigm, reality shows have shown a natural progression towards Tool Academy, I think. As producers skim the cream from the crop of wanna-be reality stars and put them all together in one show, Tool Academy becomes reality TV's Omega Point.


Other villains for a more local Tool Academy:
- Meat and Three Veg Tool
- Common Sense Tool (a.k.a. Talkback Tool)
- Grammar Tool (à la Dr. Whom)
And, channeling something of a faded zeitgeist, Corey Worthington.

It's the entertainment equivalent of putting a bunch of cats in a sack.

Michelle said...

Tool Academy is great! Can't believe that stuff makes it on to TV! Oh wait, maybe I can.

I think the weirdest thing about reality TV in NZ is that everyone knows a contestant somehow, and so the shame level is greatly magnified. Also the programmes invariably seem more hokey as the contestants act normal instead of playing up to the camera - for fear their mum will see them- and, like you say, we all know that there isn't really a market for what the winner is supposedly getting.
For example, NZ's hottest home baker - in the final episode, the contestants only had to make two pretty easy items, and the judges said both ladies did really poorly, but instead of a tense tie-breaker, or some dramatic spiel (a la tyra banks), the award was given and the programme over in about 5 minutes. Talk about anti climax! Oh and I think the winner got some appliances. Or something.

Bring on NZ Tool Academy...

Michelle said...

and by the way - David, a bunch of cats in a sack could be pretty funny to watch. May even beat Colin Mathura Jeffries saying "got any bowls I can lick?" in a seductive manner.

ofcourseicare said...

I think the impression I take away from tool academy is the pressing need for terms of indictment stronger than 'Fucking retarded'. I automatically retreat into biology. But is 'Protozoan' really that scathing?