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Wonder Showzen - Season Two
What a sad, sad disappointment. I don't recall ever seeing a series lapse from brilliance into self-indulgent inanity as quickly as "Wonder Showzen" did. My ecstatic review of Season 1 sums up my love for the series and is a reminder of its format. Season 2, which aired on MTV2 in the spring of 2006, starts out shakily and gets worse.
The first episode, "Body," is more or less up to snuff, satirizing America's obsession with victimhood. But already we see a problem that will plague the next several episodes: too much focus on the "stories" of the episodes rather than the segments -- Clarence, "Beat Kids," Q&A, etc. The plots, sets and special effects are more elaborate than before, and it simply isn't the show's strong suit.
What's more, the show becomes more stridently and bitterly satirical in this season, with repeated jabs at Middle America, Bush voters and the anti-evolution religious right. Even when you're more or less on the show's side, the constant harping on these issues gets old after a while. Where the agenda had previously been just to break taboos and be outrageous, now the agenda is politics. Meh.
The first five episodes follow that pattern: not as good as Season 1, too plot-heavy, but still mostly entertaining. Even these five sub-par episodes all have several laugh-out-loud moments, with Clarence, "Beat Kids" and Q&A still the most reliably funny segments.
Then we come to episodes 6-8. Episode 6 has the gang finding a bootleg version of "Wonder Showzen," which they watch at length. This is only the series' 14th episode, far too soon to be doing self-parody. It devolves into a weird (but not entirely unamusing) war between the real show and the bootleg show.
Episode 7 takes a segment from a previous episode -- "Horse Apples," a Red State-mocking "Hee Haw" style live-action joke show -- and expands it into a full episode of its own. It's funny as a brief parody, but a full 22 minutes is ridiculously overlong.
The last episode is a full half-hour of Clarence doing his interviews with innocent bystanders. The subject is "What's Wrong with TV?" Again, while Clarence is fantastic, a whole show devoted to him is too much.
What's more, I think the show's creative team KNOWS it's too much. The impression I get from the season overall (and from the DVD set -- more on that later) is that they find trying the audience's patience entertaining. It's meta-humor at its most modern: They want us to laugh at the fact that they actually did something so bizarrely self-indulgent, and not at the material itself. It's not the content that's funny; it's the IDEA of the content.
But what it really is, is irritating. Never mind the slight but noticeable dip in quality in the first few episodes of Season 2. The intentional awfulness of the last few is an experiment gone too far. It's fine to be all post-modern and bizarre, but if it turns off all your viewers, then where are you?
(This is the order the episodes aired. For some reason the DVD has "Science" moved to be in front of "Knowledge.")
Body (3/31/06): P puts on weight, becomes a B, then gets liposuction.
Time (4/7/06): The puppets find a time machine and create paradoxes.
Knowledge (4/14/06): A new puppet called Middle America, who sounds like George W. Bush and is shaped like the bloc of states that voted Bush in 2004, shows up and behaves stupidly. Contains the "Horse Apples" segment.
Justice (4/21/06): Set in the sepia-toned past, Chauncey is a slave-owner. It culminates in a "To Kill a Mockingbird"-type trial.
Science (4/28/06): Chauncey and Him shrink themselves down and enter Wordsworth's brain. (Possible highlight/lowlight: Clarence asks "What's the American Dream?" ... of homeless people.)
Cooperation (5/5/06): The gang finds a bootleg version of "Wonder Showzen" and watches it, with the two versions going to war against each other. I would say a series' 14th episode is a little early to be doing a self-parody.
Mathematics (5/12/06): An entire half-hour of "Horse Apples."
Television (5/19/06): An entire half-hour of Clarence asking people, "What's Wrong with TV?" It gets weird soon, and stays weird.
All eight Season 2 episodes are included on two discs, five on one and three (and most of the bonus materials) on the other. In the packaging, they've chosen the annoying format of putting one disc on top of the other, meaning you have to remove Disc 1 in order to get to Disc 2.
The package is made to look like a storybook, complete with a full-color children's story about the show's puppet characters, and some activities and games. Cute.
There are no subtitles or alternate language tracks.
A note on the menus, and this is important. Disc 1's is fine, just a very funny live-action version of the show's logo. But on Disc 2, you need to watch out. The menu is set up like a board game (Candy Land, I'm thinking), with "Episodes," "Play All" and "Extras" among the spaces. Some spaces are blank; selecting them does nothing. But the others are trouble. To wit:
"Square 4" and "Roll Again" take you to goofy 5-second little spots and then back to the menu.
"Shall We Play a Game" lets you have a staring contest with one of the focus group participants. You can't fast-forward through it (it's 2 1/2 minutes), but you can hit "menu" at any time and get out of it.
"Go Back 21 Spaces" makes the disc start over, as if you'd removed it from the DVD player and reinserted it. That means sitting through the MTV logo, the copyright warning and the other notices -- none of which can be fast-forwarded or skipped. You're obligated to sit there for about 30 seconds while they play. So don't select "Go Back 21 Spaces."
The spot marked "Khartum" gives you an animated "Horse Apples"-style cartoon (1:35) called "Scooter McJimmy: Hillbilly Boy Genius." It's pretty funny, and this one can actually be fast-forwarded and rewound.
Finally, the last spot says "Press for Your Prize!" but DON'T DO IT! It launches a 5-minute segment of "Horse Apples" outtakes -- each about a half-second long, each consisting of someone's face being zoomed in on. You cannot fast-forward, rewind or pause the segment. Pressing "menu" does nothing. Even pressing "stop" does nothing. All you can do is let it play out. The segment itself has no entertainment value (the outtakes are all too short to allow that). It's here solely to annoy you.
VIDEO: Bright, colorful and vivid, as should be expected of a new series.
AUDIO: Standard digital stereo mix, typical of a brand-new TV series.
The "Time" episode has a commentary by Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York and author of the books "Hyperspace" and "Parallel Worlds." He speaks intelligently and informatively on the subject of time travel as it relates to science. It's not a joke; he's a real professor and a real author, and what he says is legitimate science. Whether he actually watched the episode he's supposedly commenting on is not clear.
"Justice" has a commentary in which Screamin' Jay Hawkins (the show's computer-speaking parody of Stephen J. Hawking) interviews Samantha Power, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and author of "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," on the subject of genocide. Once again, a real person giving real commentary on a real subject.
The "Knowledge" episode has a featurette (12:55) in which the unsuspecting focus group participants who are shown in the episode are visited again -- and this time they're watching the "Wonder Showzen" episode in which they appear. Hilarity ensues.
The "Beat Kids" outtakes (5:12) and Clarence outtakes (4:36) are very funny, more or less as good as the stuff that made the final cut.
"Horse Arounds unt Apple boners" (5:40) has deleted "Horse Apples" scenes and a few outtakes.
"Mish-Mosh" (2:50) is mostly studio outtakes with the adorable little children talking and responding to questions. Seriously, it's cute and funny.
There are two batches of promos, PSA (1:47) and Daymares (:52), both mildly creepy and unsettling, both aired to promote the new season.
Finally, there are eight question marks on the menu, each taking you to a different odd little extra (a Clarence outtake, a "Beat Kids" outtake, some stock footage, etc., etc.). None is more than a couple minutes long. All are amusing enough.
While Season 2 has many laugh-out-loud moments, they are much fewer and farther between than in Season 1. In addition, three entire episodes are almost completely worthless, making it essentially a five-episode season. The extras are good, though, and so is the DVD presentation. Here's hoping this was the end of their experimentation and Season 3 is back to normal -- crazy, offensive normal.