Sunday, May 27, 2012

L. A. Law 1-14: Prince Kuzak in a Can

I wanted to start this post off by saying something like "L. A. Law might be the strangest show to ever become a massive hit", but it occurs to me that that's not really true.  A lot of times the most popular TV shows are the ones that are quite unusual in a way that captures the public's interest -- think Twin Peaks or Glee.  (Well, that's probably the first time those two shows have been used in the same sentence before).  For L. A. Law, it took some of the strange and experimental aspects of Hill Street Blues -- the serialized storytelling and the use of out-of-place humour -- and brought them into the mainstream by attaching them to a sexy lawyer procedural.

What results is a show with wild clashes in tone, veering from dark socially-conscious drama to lighthearted farce to the 80s network equivalent of one of today's soft-porn cable dramas.  All of these elements are done fairly well on their own, although the comedy is very broad, but what's really strange is that they all feel like they rightfully exist in the same universe.  This episode's most serious plotline deals with ostensible lead Michael Kuzak (played by 80s artifact extraordinaire "Handsome" Harry Hamlin) dealing with the public suicide of another lawyer, a character whose mental breakdown was first played entirely for laughs.  The absurd and the serious exist in continuity with each other, and L. A. Law recognizes how they can frequently be two sides of the same coin.

Despite the jokey title[1], "Prince Kuzak in a Can" is one of the more all-around serious of L. A. Law episodes.  The story about the suicide of Sid Hershberg, the main serialized plot, is pretty unrelentingly bleak -- Michael attends his mostly empty funeral, and is entirely unable to put the death behind him, to the extend that he begins following Sid's path itself.  The most comedic part is an episodic plot with Victor representing a computer geek who falls head over heels for the office secretary, but even here his affections are treated as a serious matter and not an absurd joke. It does enable a brief reprisal of the show's sexual fixation, in which Arnie has a lengthy monologue about his first time that sounds like a piece of (competent) erotic fiction.  But the non-dramatic moments in this episode are still more subdued than usual.

This is because the plotline has started to tug at the just-established foundation beneath L. A. Law's narrative house of cards.  The show as a whole is a mess of contradictions, and I mean this in a good way -- it has an ambivalence to it that no amount of grandstanding by the characters is able to tease out.  The aesthetics of the series are no exception.  I talked a bit about 80s cheese last week, but this is a much more direct example of it: the garish colour palette, the jazzy score, and of course, the hair.

So, its visual style and general aesthetics are very much in line with 80s soaps like Dallas, and there's more than a bit of a soapish element to the plotting.  It is a show about the affairs of sexy rich people that  you can live vicariously through.  But at the same time L. A. Law makes no bones about the essentially vacuous nature of its protagonists' profession.  For every high-stakes trial involving big speeches there are at least three or four that are petty battles settled through bureaucratic gamesmanship.  Its lawyers don't usually fight for justice, or injustice for that matter: they are tools to more powerful forces.

This vacuousness and drudgery is what was established early on as the source of Sid's madness.  As a small-time lawyer representing prostitutes and hoodlums (possibly a public defender, although I can't quite remember now), he existed at the ugly bottom of the judicial system, where his clients were nothing more than dim pieces shuttled between the dual machines of crime and punishment.  This is visible in his first scene, where he yells at a repeat offender he's representing about not being able to come up with an alibi (a scene most likely inspired by ...And Justice for All).  The setting of his public suicide, where he pleads with the jury to consider his client as a human being beyond judgement, just further highlights that this is a man who is not insane by nature but completely destroyed by the meaninglessness of his profession.

In this episode, Michael starts following in his footsteps.  He takes on two of Sid's cases, both of which emphasize this kind of small-stakes futility.  In one, he represents the above-mentioned prostitute, who has already been arrested again before he finishes dealing with the first charge.  To some extent, the show demonizes criminals like her, who are generally portrayed as dim, mean-spirited and hopeless.  They aren't the monsters that you would see on something like Law and Order, but they are to an extent grotesques.  There is a condescension inherent in the series, which usually treats the life of the proletariat non-lawyers as only causes to be fought for, although it is at least fairly conscious of it.

This is further cemented by the other client, a hit-and-run driver who gets his grandmother to lie on the stand to provide him with an alibi.  This is, as the judge suggests to Michael, a fairly ordinary situation: witnesses lie, and it's the job of the prosecution to ferret it out, not the defense.  Michael doesn't even have conclusive proof that the witness is lying.  But it drives home not just the subjectivity of the legal system, which reduces truth to a rhetorical outcome, but the banality of evil -- or, to be more precise (because his client is not exactly Eichmann) the banality of crime.

At the same time, Michael's refusal to proceed, and subsequent jailing for contempt of court, restores the meaning to the courtroom.  It becomes a trial not of his client but of him himself, and of individual righteousness against systemic malaise.  Of course, this is solipsistic in the extreme, and the series never lets us believe that Michael has accomplished something.  Instead, this echoes Sid's first appearance.  Righteousness -- a belief in what you learned about the legal system in high school civics -- is, in L. A. Law, a form of madness.  And this is another contradiction.  The show has a distinct lack of irony, and bears down with all of the raw, embarrassing emotion of its era, but for all that it has an essentially cynical heart.

There's also a kind of Shakesperian element to the drama, in form if not in quality.  There are plenty of monologues that start out as ruminations on plot events but quickly turn to more philosophical matters, with Sidney's death scene being one of the best examples.  Michael's stand in this episode, as well as Arnie's monologue about his first time, are similar -- dramatic gestures that undercut themselves at the same moment they commit entirely to the drama.  Or maybe it's just that the American court system lends itself to such performances, and is a kind of theatre in itself.

It's also important to note that L. A. Law was possibly the first truly popular serialized show in America.  Of course, once again the ground was paved by Hill Street Blues and a couple other predecessors, but this brought it into the mainstream in a new way.  And this doesn't mean series-long storylines as is commonplace today, but stories that stretch across two or three episodes and are done, which is in some way a less committed version of serial storytelling but is in another way a more natural version of it: each storyline takes however long it takes.  Sometimes these stories seem less like whole-formed stories and more like a kind of bizarre association, with each spinning off a minor detail into a new story.  (For instance, the next episode deals only briefly with Michael's problems, but has a storyline with the judge who throws him in jail in this episode.)

I hate to use a "land of contrasts" conclusion, but L. A. Law lends itself very well to that.  It is simultaneously conventional and experimental, serious and silly, high camp and high art.  All of these elements together make it a bit of a mess, but they also may be what made it popular: there was something for everyone, even snot-nosed amateur critics writing  two and a half decades after the fact.

Next week: "Sing, RahXephon.  In order for everything to become one again."

[1]Looking at the episode titles reveals how lightly the show's staff took even its most serious plots.  I mean, the episode before this, where Sid commits suicide, is named "Sidney the Dead-Nosed Reindeer".  No matter how dramatic (or melodramatic) L. A. Law got, there was always a winking feel to it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Mixed martial arts is one of the few sports, and certainly the most successful one, whose invention took place in modern memory.  There are weird predecessor fights like Muhammed Ali fighting Antonio Inoki and whatever shit Helio Gracie got up to, but as an ongoing sport and not a freakshow it mainly dates back to the early 90s.  The consequence of this is that pretty much the entire sport has been recorded and is available for perusal by both legal and not-so-legal means.  And what's more, due to the relatively slow schedule, one can actually watch, say, all of the UFC events in order.

Doing this would, I imagine, have a curious effect.  On the one hand, the seemingly discrete fights and tournaments would merge into a broader narrative, one about the rise and fall of particular fighters, and the quest for legitimacy by the sport in general.  Narratives are what draw us into sports, and the narratives of mixed martial arts have the benefits of being largely true.  When we like a fighter, it's because of the way he presents himself, not because he's been slapped with a jersey with our hometown on it.  UFC 1 contains an easy narrative, one that's been reworked into founding mythology by the promotion in its later days: Royce Gracie, the smallest man in the tournament, comes in and beats everyone else because he simply has the better technique, and in the process demonstrates the efficiency of his Brazilian jiu-jitsu style over less effective martial arts.  In the new UFC intro video, the first thing we see is this event's fight between Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock.

At the same time, there are moments of narrative discord.  This is, again, the case with all sports: the facts rarely fit the predetermined narrative exactly.  The plucky underdog hometown team makes a decent showing but goes down in the quarterfinals.  The intimidating, dominant fighter gets laid on for three rounds by a dorky wrestler.  And so on and so forth.  We can see that even in the heavily mythologized UFC 1: the finals are not Gracie/Shamrock, but Gracie against the now-forgotten kickboxer Gerard Gordeau.  Gracie/Shamrock itself lasts under a minute, and while being one of the more competitive fights, still looks very sloppy compared to modern MMA grappling.  At the same time as sports tend towards narrativization, they resist it.

UFC 1 (the "1" was, of course, added in later) hardly looks like the start of a global sport.  It portrays itself as an one-off exhibition of martial arts, and the one-night tournament format certainly doesn't suggest attempts at an ongoing league.  It's very much a competition between sports, with the matches subtitled as "Boxing vs. Jiu Jitsu" or "Kickboxing vs. Karate".   Speaking of the graphics, they evoke less of a sense of epicness and more one of 80s cheese.  Which has kind of come back around to epic again.

(Wait, is that GSP?)

There's a general sense throughout that an 80s martial arts movie has escaped the limits of fiction and entered into the real world.  The announcers do their best to sell it as a legitimate competition, by focusing on the nebulous "strategy" and the martial arts credentials of the fighters involved, but they don't really have the kind of legitimating framework that Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan (today's UFC commentators) now do, and it's hard to make up these kind of things on the fly.  Curiously, though things are much more brutal than the present-day sport -- in the first fight, Gerard Gordeau knocks out Teila Tuli's teeth, two of which were allegedly embedded in his foot for the rest of the night, while the commentators bemoaned the fight's early medical stoppage -- there's much less focus on the brutality.  There are no nu-metal highlight reels of brutal knockouts, and no direct comparisons to the gladiatorial arena like there was in one long-running UFC intro.  Watching it, it's kind of hard to decide whether it's barbaric or totally lame.

Of course, UFC 1 has an ending fitting for an 80s martial arts movie, with the small foreign guy in a gi winning everything despite seeming to be an underdog.  However, to some extent the fix was in.  The Gracie family was a major force behind the creation of the event, and it was designed to showcase the effectiveness of their style.  You can tell this early on from the fourth commentator who seems to be there entirely to heap praise on Brazilian jiu-jitsu.  That's not to say that it was Gracie against a bunch of tomato cans -- Ken Shamrock was certainly a legitimate competitor who would go on to have a storied career -- but he was far from an underdog.

One can begin to discern this in his quarterfinal fight, against boxer Art Jimmerson ("ranked 10th in the world by the IBF!").  Jimmerson comes in wearing one boxing glove, an absurd moment that would soon go down in UFC lore.  This was caused possibly by the ad-hoc rules summit[1] between the fighters that only highlights the unstable foundation that the entire event rested on, or it may be a comically literal attempt to embrace the mixture of martial arts -- one hand to box, one hand to grapple.  In any case, it's the boxer that comes off looking like a fool, as he is flabbergasted by the ground game and taps out despite not seeming to be in any particular submission hold.  Even next to the sumo fighter Jimmerson seems like a joke.

Once again, this seems to be according to plan.  The commentators predict and then describe Jimmerson's loss as caused not by his own skills but by being a boxer -- he's said to have "too many rules" and to be too limited in a "real fight".  This is a deliberate shot across the bow of the most developed combat sport, and an argument that mixed martial arts (a name the sport had yet to officially adopt) is more "real".  The rivalry between boxing and MMA continues to this day, with everyone from fans to promoters routinely getting in arguments about it, and the UFC using Jimmerson as a fall guy might be the first shot fired [2].

Gracie/Jimmerson also plays into another curious factor about this first event: most of the fights are rather one-sided.  None of the fights go past the first five-minute round, and the only one that seems really competitive is a sloppy but enjoyable slugfest between Zane Frasier and Kevin Rosier.  This is mostly because of the uneven development of skills, but in a way it adds a kind of verisimilitude -- after all, most streetfights are quick and one-sided.  The present-day UFC, with its carefully even matchmaking, comes off as more of a sport but less of a spectacle.

And that's the comparison that one can't help but make.  The UFC today is in many ways what UFC 1 disavows.  The opening credits state that there are "no rules, no judges' scores, and no time limits" -- all things that the current product has, and for good reason.  Mixed martial arts has become a discipline just like boxing has, dependent on its rules, and of somewhat questionable application in a real fight (can you imagine Ben Askren in a bar brawl?)  The weird combination of brutality, 80s cheese and spectacle has morphed into a sleekly marketed, carefully regulated sport.  It's a sport I really like, and the dominant narrative of the sport cleaning itself up and becoming legitimate after these early wild days isn't wrong.  But something's been lost since this crazy, fly-by-night first UFC, and even if we've gotten something better in return it's hard not to miss it.

Next week: "At first I thought it must have been a dream, but I had these waffly black and blue marks all over my leg, and my complexion was totally cleared up."

[1]The early UFC events were often marketed as having "no rules", but this is mainly a marketing ploy -- low blows, eye gouging and biting were banned, along with a host of unstated rules that the system couldn't have functioned without, like no weapons.  The "no rules" bit is, however, one of the few attempts to market this early product for its violence.

[2]The modern UFC more or less repeated the Jimmerson fight when they brought in James Toney to fight Randy Couture a few years back, showing that these early freakshows sometimes pop up in the modern professional product in what could almost be described as the return of the repressed.  Toney faired about as well as Jimmerson did, although he got paid a lot more for it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Community 3-18: Course Listing Unavailable

This episode of Community begins where so few do: directly where the last episode left off.  That episode ended with longtime supporting character Starburns being killed off in an off-screen meth lab accident, a surprisingly dark ending for a joke character.  It seems to presage a deeper shift.  As I mentioned in my last post on Community, much of the third season has been about the central characters facing or not facing adulthood, which comes with the realization that there are consequences to your actions -- even actions meant in jest.  For the past couple episodes, especially in the Troy/Abed story arc, it feels as though the show has been coming down on the side of childish naivete -- but in "Course Listing Unavailable" (a title that directly suggests the failing of usual modes of understanding) things swing around dramatically to the other side.

We begin with one of Community's trademark round-table scenes, where as usual the jokes are flying fast and furious.  The main question at stake seems to be how to react to Starburns' death, and more generally to the death of an acquaintance.  Jeff's everybody-dies refusal to mourn at all seems a little harsh, and a not entirely genuine application of nihilistic philosophy into real life (as Jeff so often does), but the insistence of Annie and the rest of the group on reacting to it as a major tragedy seems also a bit disingenuous, given that they hardly knew Starburns, referring to him entirely by a nickname.  They seem to be more upset by the idea of death intruding on their happy fantasyland than anything else.

And then comes the Dean in a silly outfit to give them more bad news.  This is a familiar comic beat, but interestingly enough we see the moment before it: the Dean receiving the news himself and trying to decide what to wear.  We see his closet full of costumes which, while fabulous, is nowhere near the comic dimensions it could have taken in one of the show's more surreal episodes.  One of the series's most outlandish, over-the-top characters is connected, at least notionally, to real life.

The plot then unfolds pretty directly from there.  What's most notable about it is that it's driven by the only instance in the episode of someone behaving like an adult and taking responsibility for their actions, the Biology professor resigning for letting Starburns steal his equipment.  (Once again, Community riffs off Michael K. Williams' iconic Omar character, who is often said to be the only one in The Wire who took responsibility for their actions.)  This quiet, off-screen act is a strong contrast with the hysteria we see on screen, and the overreaction and the denial of responsibility from both the study group and Chang and his minions.

Because, after all, what the study group does at Starburns' memorial is basically a textbook example of inciting a riot ("Let's burn this mother down!").  Of course, inciting a riot is kind of a bogus crime, but that's neither here nor there.  It's a funny segment, involving lots of one-liners, a pinch of meta-commentary and a call-and-response rap, but it doesn't hide the fact that the study group is basically turning a memorial service into a binge of whining about having to go to summer school.  And the riot, crucially, starts before Chang and company swarm in, making the issue of causality more complicated than the group later admits to.

There are obvious political resonances, of course, from the crackdown on the Occupy movement to the Patriot Act (the piece of crayon writing that Chang makes the Dean sign to authorize force).  Perhaps this is a kind of apology for the cavalier dismissal of protesters in "Geography of Global Conflict", which coincidentally aired during the peak of the Occupy movement.  But if it is, it still rests a great deal of the blame with the study group -- and, by analogy, protesters.

What comes as a surprise is the characters having to face realistic consequences for their actions.  Greendale has disintegrated into much worse conditions before, such as during the pillow and blanket fort wars few episodes ago, or any of the paintball mayhem.  But the smaller scale of this episode's riot almost makes punishment seems more acceptable -- we're no longer entirely in the land of whimsy, as we are in the concept episodes.  Of course, there's still a good deal of silliness here, such as Chang producing an impostor Dean to get him off the hook, but it's firmly in the less surreal register of Community's "normal" episodes.

Community has become fairly notorious for ending its episodes on a big speech, usually by Jeff, a trend that the show itself poked fun at in its fake clip show last season.  (To be fair, it goes to this well less often than a lot of other shows that shall not be named here).  Here, we have Troy giving a much shorter speech, which basically amounts to "we're together, so everything is going to be alright".  This is, in the end, what the series has the most faith in: connection, as well as good humour.  The sentimentality of this moment, accompanied by treacly music and a mise en scene that might have come out of a Boston Pizza ad, could be easily mocked, but for viewers that have been watching from the beginning it uses their familiarity with the characters -- their TV friends, as sitcom characters are designed to be -- this is a tender, genuinely affecting moment.  The "we" in this scene seems to implicitly include the viewer as well as the characters, and could be read as a sign of appreciation for Community's loyal cult audience.

And as far as the good humour goes, we can see that in Annie's reaction to the heavy drink she poured herself in a moment of desperation just a few minutes ago.  She scrunches up her face and shakes her head, as though laughing at the foolishness of her previous angst.  More than anything, this final shot suggests that the ability to laugh at yourself is just as important as togetherness.

This ending calls back repeatedly to one of the series's most high-concept episodes, and one of its best, "Remedial Chaos Theory".  This is the same type of whimsical episode that "Course Listing Unavailable" so decidedly sets itself against.  But the comparison only makes the current situation look more dire -- there is no more gimmick, no reset button that can make this go away by the end of the episode.  As much as the sentimental moment of togetherness may bolster the group's spirits, the fact remains that they're expelled, and as the episode closes there's no solution to that problem in sight.  Once again, we return to the title, and the breakdown of Community's standard approaches.

"Course Listing Unavailable" is directed by Tristam Shapeero, who has become one of the series's go-to directors (having done about a third of this season) and has a script attributed to regular, non-standout-ish writer Adam Countee[1], although once again this doesn't mean much given the collaborative nature of American comedy writing.  Shapeero has previously done a lot of the gimmickier episodes, but here he does similarly well with the gimmick of the complete loss of gimmicks.  Even the "normal" episodes have a distinct look, involving bright colours (although not to the extent of something like Suburgatory), clean lighting, and a lot of quick cuts.  There have been a lot of "normal" Community episodes, even if they aren't the ones that grab the most attention, so there's a definitive stylistic template that Shapeero employs well here.

And that, in the end, makes "Course Listing Unavailable" a bit paradoxical.  It's a "normal" episode, but it threatens to destroy the prospect of future normality entirely.  It fully explores the fear Community has been playing with all season -- that sometimes normality is the most terrifying thing of all.

Next week: "You're about to see something that you've never seen before."

[1]He doesn't have a Wikipedia page, so I'm assuming he's a schlub.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Amazing Race 20-09: Bollywood Travolta

Most episodes of The Amazing Race stick to the show's established formula pretty rigorously.  The challenges and route are created to give rise to a specific type of competitive narrative, and usually they do as they're supposed to.  This is why most Amazing Race challenges are only moderately challenging: they ultimately have to be surpassed in order for the narrative to progress.  Sometimes, however, things don't go according to plan, and the editors (the real authors of any given reality shows, if you have to pin it down) have to stitch together a different narrative.  These are the episodes where reality television is most fascinating, if not necessarily at its most entertaining.

This particular episode is set up to be a pretty harmless, disposable leg of the race, complete with the non-elimination anticlimax at the end.  It's the usual trip to India, a staple because of its crowded foreignness and ability to provoke mental breakdowns and bouts of racism from the racers, both of which make for can't-miss TV.  The Amazing Race has gone to this well so often that they're down to hitting up Cochin in search of a new city.  The challenges are pretty standard fare, with none of them seeming immediately difficult: they have to perform a Bollywood dance routine, then score a point in cricket or learn how to drive an Indian taxi.  This is the usual MO: use stereotypical "foreign colour" to provide an opportunity for your contestants to embarrass themselves.  This is especially promising on this season, full of hate-worthy characters.

But things get derailed at the seemingly innocuous dancing challenge, when redneck-caricature team Mark and Bopper fail over and over again.  What was initially an opportunity for some easy laughs now becomes surprisingly physical and brutal, as heatstroke starts to set in and Mark gets rejected again and again.  There's almost a deconstructionist tone to the episode, as the pratfalls and broad humour of the race are turned into something stomach-churning.  The repetition of the peppy Indian dance music starts sounding almost nightmarish.

The narratives of competitive reality are not too different from the narratives we associate with sports, the way we turn an objective, almost scientific competition[1] into a story.  Usually The Amazing Race draws on a competition story, revolving over who's going to win and who's going to lose, and whether or not good will prevail.  But in "Bollywood Travolta" that's all but dispensed with.  There's little suspense as to who will clinch first place, as frontrunners Dave and Rachel cruise to an easy victory, remaining ahead of their competition the whole way (with the exception of a confusing airport scramble that puts Ralph & Vanessa momentarily ahead).  There also aren't any of the usual editing tricks to build suspense as to who will come in last -- the cut-aways to the other teams checking in at the pitstop seem increasingly perfunctory as the story turns more and more towards the travails of Bopper and Mark.

What we get instead is the other sports story narrative, in which moral redemption is achieved through the act of playing the sport and not necessarily through victory.  These are mainly hard-luck stories in which simply making it to the game represents a triumph over adversity.  The most obvious examples would be the original Rocky and much of Friday Night Lights.  These narratives are really no less sentimental and silly than the more conventional version, but because of their association with underdogs have become associated with gritty urban realism.  And indeed, there's a kind of blue-collar dignity that makes you want to cheer for Bopper & Mark, no matter how stereotypical they act.  They talk constantly about their family, which seems designed to present them as having more real concerns than the pretty twenty-somethings that seem more like glamorous fairy creatures.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily add up to a more effective episode than the boilerplate Race standard it was designed as.  For starters, while the drama is genuinely affecting in the moment, further consideration makes it seem rather silly.  Bopper tells his friend that the race isn't worth his life, and this seems to be a sticking point, as though a dance competition would literally kill him.  This drama, with Bopper begging Mark to quit and Mark refusing, is repeated again and again until Mark finally does quit -- only for their positions to seemingly reverse, with Bopper urging his teammate to give the challenge one more shot.  This doesn't seem to have a diegetic reason, although  most fans have decided that it was producer interference outside the episode's narrative.

This is followed by the standard sappy goodbye montage of the eliminated team enjoying the race.  This is the kind of gross, affecting but entirely overplayed sentiment that has made The Amazing Race such a long-lasting series -- it plays to the cheap seats, and is unabashed in doing so.  In this case, the montaged team isn't actually eliminated, which makes the whole thing sort of silly.  There's a similar montage next week when they're actually eliminated, and I believe there was one the first time they were saved by a non-elimination.  Even broad reality shows can't show their editing tricks too often.

(Bopper & Mark have really gotten lucky with these things, which you think would invalidate them as hard-working underdogs, but for some reason it doesn't.  This is mainly because reality shows present their formal caprice as a reflection of the internal values of the team.  The fact that Bopper & Mark keep getting saved shows their never-say-die attitude, despite the fact that the teams that didn't get lucky never got a chance to never say die.)

The rest of the episode is pretty prosaic.  The race's ongoing storylines, such as a ridiculously petty squabble between Rachel & Dave and Art & JJ and the continued catfighting between the ex-Big Brother team and Ralph & Vanessa.  There's been an awful lot of drama between teams this season in a show that usually focuses more on the relationships between teammates, which makes it a bit more like a conventional trashy reality show but also kind of more entertaining in a guilty-pleasure way.  This culminated in an episode a few weeks ago that went over 20 minutes without a challenge, just a lot of drama and arguing between all the teams except the happy-go-lucky hillbillies.  (That was another episode that messed with the standard format, an encouraging sign at least in theory.)  Nobody comes out very well in these arguments other than Bopper & Mark for not getting involved in them, which is what makes them such clear heroes in this episode.  But they physically can't win, and that leaves us with a conundrum, as the finale seems set to be a showdown between four villains.

What other narratives do we have to latch onto, then, besides good versus evil?  "Bollywood Travolta" offers up a lukewarm battle of the sexes, a trope that reality television always falls back on when it's desperate.  Art and JJ make several bitter comments at the Roadblock about how the girls will have a natural dancing advantage over the guys ("I'm telling you man, dudes do not move like girls.  It doesn't look the same"), but are then hoisted by their own petard when Rachel (the redhead one) beats them at the sports-based cricket challenge.

This would be a standard liberal pseudo-feminist narrative if it weren't for the fact that the episode seems to suggest that Art & JJ have a point.  After all, the three male/female teams all send their female member to do the dancing roadblock, and all three finish before the two all-male squads (although Art and Mark are hardly the type of men you'd want in a dance contest).  The same Rachel that later triumphs in the Detour remarks at this challenge that "I'm a girl, of course I'm going to be emotional", making her hardly a feminist heroine.  She generally lives up to, or is edited into, the misogynist diva character that many reality-show women have inhabited before her.  To their credit, The Amazing Race casts plenty of tough chicks, fey guys, and generally vaguely gender-non-conforming individuals -- but it also casts plenty of meatheads and divas, and they're the ones that have survived this season.  The detachment of the format, which generally doesn't explicitly judge its contestants, here seems like a weakness -- it's possible to read this episode as a reaffirmation of misogynist principles, and indeed that's easier than any other reading.

In the end, "Bollywood Travolta" does strike narrative paydirt in the ongoing tribulations of Bopper & Mark, making the fate of a comedy team something serious.  But it's an unsustainable narrative -- the bad thing about underdogs is that, in the end, they usually lose.  And what's worse, it seems to come about almost entirely by accident instead of producer or editor creation.  The last thing a reality TV show wants to be is dictated by reality.

Next week: "Come on, I Dean / Oh my hands are so clean / And at this moment / I am stapling".

[1]This applies more to sports to reality shows -- the latter are often patently unfair, but sports are a regulated system designed to create an impartial test of athletic ability with no external variables.  Of course, this works great for a science experiment, but as people we require a bit more narrative oomph, which is why the ref is always screwing over our home team.