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''Wonder Showzen'': The Complete Series
The early-to-mid 2000s marked two major divergent paths for the evolution of screen comedy. On the big screen, Judd Apatow's influence became inescapable after a string of hits starting with Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Superbad, giving way to an improv-heavy "riff" approach that only just now seems to be falling out of vogue. Meanwhile, TV went in the other direction, with the cult power of Cartoon Network's [adult swim] programming block paving the road for bizarro comedy shows like "Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!" and "Robot Chicken." MTV's contribution to this strain of bizarre, absurdist TV comedy was "Wonder Showzen," a deranged riff on a children's TV program, complete with puppets and "educational" segments.
Checking out "Wonder Showzen" roughly 15 years after the fact via the new (and perhaps unusually belated) Complete Series DVD set inspires some nervousness -- early 2000s comedy also has a streak of "edginess for edginess' sake." Turns out "Wonder Showzen" is a little bit of both, with the episodes offering up an unexpected blast of incisive satire, largely directed at rotten American culture. However, not every joke that seemed like a rebellion in 2005 plays out quite the same way in 2021, and the show's second season feels a little less precise in its aim than the first.
Two of the show's best and most durable elements pop up roughly once an episode, and both involve the "Showzen" team accosting real people on the street. "Beat Kids," a "news report" segment where a child goes around asking adults questions on a topical subject, represents the peak of the progam's material, both in terms of inventiveness and payoff, and "Chauncey," a sketch with an annoying blue puppet, consistently raises the question of whether or not the filmmakers are going to get assaulted. "Beat Kids" provides the show with one of its only recurring human characters, a reporter named Trevor whose fearlessness is matched only by his convincingly innocent glee. In two of the show's most ballsy segments, he dresses up as Hitler and a dead Pope and successfully ropes in unsuspecting passerby into cutesy antics and heresy. Another great one involves a racist TV show that is first shown as a sketch on "Showzen," and then reappears as a program being shown to test audiences that Trevor interviews. In another famous segment (still hanging around the internet as a .gif or reaction image), Wall Street businessmen are grilled on the ethics of their jobs, and another kid ropes people into jokes and laughs at Ground Zero in NYC. Chauncey, meanwhile, is intentionally annoying, interrupting people when asking about patience, teaching counting by throwing things on the ground, and getting right up in people's faces when investigating personal boundaries. "Beat Kids" has the extra layer of underlining hypocrisies and revealing people's blind spots, but both are consistent in how funny they are.
The best parts of the show are similar to "Beat Kids" in that they tackle real subjects, using the cover of the show's anarchic, R-rated humor to comment on something serious. Some subjects the show tackles include alcoholism, distrust of the police, the treatment of veterans, the Israel-Palestine conflict, slavery, beauty standards, and more. "Wonder Showzen" isn't a preachy show, angling for gags over commentary, but it gets a fair amount of satire in through a sledgehammer-like approach, just slamming the audience with the point right on the way to another punchline. "Educational" films built around stock footage (for example, a pig farm) are a pretty good "in a nutshell" representation of how bluntly the show executes its messages, and an animated segment like "Plastic Surgeons Without Borders" is a good example of how absurd the creators are willing to get in doing so.
The biggest flaw with the show is that almost a third of the sketches feel like they miss the forest for the trees. Again, "Wonder Showzen" seems to take a joke-first approach, so flubbing a message may not be high on the list of the writers' concerns, but sketches like "Hobo Ops" and a Chauncey segment where he bothers what appears to be real homeless people end up getting a little uncomfortable. "Hobo Ops" also introduces one of the show's major failings, a consistently frustrating streak of exaggerated Asian caricature that undercuts the program's satirization of other racism. One of the "Beat Kids" segments takes place at a beauty pageant (a clip of this about world hunger has also been famously spread as a meme), and the show tries to have its cake and eat it too by criticizing Western beauty standards while also making all the models out to be idiots, and an episode where one of the puppet characters yearns to have a sex change has also aged like milk.
"Wonder Showzen" premiered in 2005, and the second and final season was released on DVD way back in 2006. Not sure what exactly possessed Paramount to release a Complete Series DVD in 2021, a year after the show's 15th anniversary, but here it is, condensing the two sets into a single case with new cover art. The black backdrop and rainbow-colored title treatment create a nice contrast with one another, creating an eye-catching package. The four discs come in a glossy Amaray case with the four discs all housed on the two double-sided flap trays in the middle, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
At this point, it should be noted that the four discs in this Complete Series DVD are the exact same discs that were already released, and thus, the 1.33:1 full frame presentations and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio tracks in the set haven't changed from the ones issued 16 years ago. Viewed today, the results are a mixed bag. The bulk of the show looks pretty good for SD, with an impressive crispness and stability free of artifacting or banding. On the other hand, aliasing is a consistent and intrusive issue, especially during animated segments (which will start out looking as good as the rest of the show, then mysteriously transform to an ugly mess of stairstepping between frames, with no obvious rhyme or reason). It seems likely that this is not really a disc issue and more to do with the production of the show itself, but it still detracts from the experience. Sound is fine, with the show's kid programming aesthetic making for a relatively straightforward and simple sort of mix. Unfortunately, despite an English SDH logo on the back of the case, no subtitles or captions are included for the first season.
As these are, again, the exact same discs that were previously released, the extras on this set are identical to those found on the two individual releases. They include six audio commentaries, seven separate collections of outtakes and deleted scenes, two featurettes, two collections of promos, a music video, and some other odds and ends, including several easter eggs. You can read about these extras in further detail here and here.
The fact that a handful of one-liners and bits from "Wonder Showzen" have found a second life as tumblr posts and .gifs is honestly indicative of how far ahead of the curve Vernon Chatman and John Lee were on some of their comedy. Those parts of the show are perhaps more incisive today than they were then -- at the very least, it's hard to imagine many of the segments getting the green light. On the other hand, not all of the program has stood the test of time, but that's to be expected with comedy, especially anything trying to be politically conscious. For fans of the show, this new "Complete Series" set seems like a great deal...if they hadn't bought it 10 years ago. Recommended.
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