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Invasion Iowa

Echo Bridge Home Entertainment // Unrated // May 19, 2009
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted July 5, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Series:
No matter what you might think of William Shatner and his acting ability, you have to admit that the man has had an amazing career.  While most dramatic actors get one TV series and then fade away, he's stared in several series (Star Trek, T. J. Hooker, Rescue 911, Boston Legal, and the Australian production A Twist in the Tale) as well as countless mini-series, movies, and guest appearances.  In 2005, at the age of 74 (!), Shatner took a crew to the small town of Riverside, Iowa to film a movie he had written 30 years ago.  Bringing a crew of Hollywood filmmakers and actors, Shatner filled several of the roles with locals and began filming.  There was only one catch:  they weren't filming a movie, but a reality TV show.  The result is Invasion Iowa, an oddly compelling show that has several good laughs but never makes fun of the people of Riverside.
One of the reasons the show works as well as it does is that the people of Riverside (pop 928, famous as the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk) aren't the butt of the jokes, Shatner and the cast and crew he brings with him are.  Played by impromptu comics who were in character the whole time, the rest of the cast includes the air-brained, one-named, leading lady Griffin (Desi Lydic), Shatner's incompetent and anxious assistant Herb (Michael J. O'Hara), Tiny (Kirk Ward) Shatner's body double and nephew, and Shatner's personal Spiritual Advisor Steve (Ernie Grunwald).  Later in the series a studio exec arrives, the hard-nosed and totally unreasonable Max (played magnificently by Garz Chan.) 
After making a big appearance in the middle of Riverside by driving up in a huge stretch limo, William Shatner addresses the townsfolk, bringing his Emmy award with him onto the stage just in case anyone didn't realize he was a real TV star.  Soon afterwards they hold auditions and pick several locals to fill important roles in the movie.
What a movie it is too.  With a hilariously bad script filled with every bad SF cliché that can be imagined, the plot involves Shatner's character going back in time to protect a young 20 year old girl (a Riverside local) from being kidnapped and impregnated by an evil alien ruler.  Arriving in 21st Century Iowa, the visitor from the future finds himself falling in love with the young girl he's supposed to protect.  After defending her for a robotic assassin, the two are to get married (with Shatner wearing tin foil over his sneakers to make him look futuristic,) only to have the wedding interrupted by the evil Emperor. 
In between filming the scenes from the movie, where all the locals were nice enough not to critique the horrible lines, Shatner and his entourage interacted with the citizens of Riverside.  A lot of it was funny too, like when they visited the church that was going to be used in the climax of the film.  They were complimenting the priest on his lovely place of worship when Shatner asked if they could break the 100 year old stained glass windows.  The priest chuckles a bit and says "You're kidding" to which Shatner replies "No, I'm not kidding."  It was so funny that Shatner (in his egomaniacal Hollywood star character) would think that the church should let him destroy their windows.  He's astounded that someone would actually say 'no'.  It becomes a running gag, with the crew giving the priest a dog bowl for his pet in the hopes that the (small and insignificant) gift would cause him to change his mind.
There were a lot of great segments in the show.  Griffith's children's book (which advocated plastic surgery to make girls feel better about themselves,) making Tiny do scene where he runs down the street again and again and again, the reaction on everyone's face when Herb broke Max's glasses, and of course the reveal at he end were all fun.  You could also tell that the actors started to really care for the people that they had met.  This comes to a head at the end of the series when an old man that Shatner had been talking to at breakfast every morning as the actor for a favor.  The man and William drove up to a cemetery where the octogenarian introduced his dead wife to his new friend.  You could tell that Shatner was really touched and moved and when they two hugged afterwards there were tears in the stars eyes. 
While this is still reality TV, and by definition the bottom of the heap, every episode had a few really good laughs in it and almost none of them were at the expense of the people of Riverside.  
Of course that reality doesn't stop people from complaining.  The biggest critique I've heard of this show is that it's using the people of Riverside, hurting their feelings, and making fun of them.  Of course, in today's politically correct world, the fact that someone isn't offended or hurt isn't enough to call off self-appointed arbiters of the public good.  The plain and simple fact remains that the people used in the filming of the 'movie' are all interviewed after they discover that it was all a gag and they're all fine with it (some are even relieved, thinking that the movie script was so bad that it would bring shame onto their city.)  There was one member of the local crew who was upset and even walked out of the movie wrap dinner (where the joke was revealed.)  That person did come to the premier that evening and admitted that he was initially upset but that upon reflection he did have a great time and that everything had been a lot of fun.  Overall the people of Riverside had a great time, they got a significant amount of money for hosting the crew, and they brought even more attention to their town, something that they obviously wanted.  But that's not good enough for a lot of people who apparently haven't seen the show.
The DVD:

The stereo soundtrack was about average for a reality show like this.  There wasn't a great range and it wasn't the last word in high fidelity, but it got the job done.  The dialog was easy to hear, even in the noisy location scenes and that's all you really need.
The show was originally shown on Spike TV in 2005 and the full frame image looked about average for a low budget TV show.  The picture was a bit flat and the definition was only average, but it was fine for this type of show.
I was really hoping there would be an update on some of the people from Riverside to see what happened to them and what they thought of the series after having seen it.  Unfortunately that wasn't to be.  The only extras are a pair of commentary tracks on two episodes by William Shatner and producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.  These were pretty sedate and didn't reveal much.  They often explained what was going on in the scene or Shatner would talk about what he was thinking about the various townspeople, something that he did in the show too.  There was a good amount of dead space too, making these a pair of tracks that it's safe to skip.
Final Thoughts:
Having lived in Iowa for half a decade, I didn't find this show insulting to Iowans or the people from Riverside.  It was a light amusing reality show that had some substantial laughs.  Though I was worried about how they were going to reveal the joke and not make the locals look or feel stupid, but they manage to pull that off without much trouble.  A fun and enjoyable show this comes with a strong recommendation.
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