The talk show may be television's essential format, its most original and idiosyncratic invention. With its comfy chairs and tables and mugs of "coffee" and its (semi-) informal, (semi-)unscripted air of hanging out, it reflects the room in which its viewers sit, completing a kind of inclusive family circle, making a party of which all are a part. It's the People's TV and, not surprisingly, the favored form of the amateur personalities of public access. Its architecture, equipment and rituals -- the hierarchy of desk, chair and couch, for instance, and of host, sidekick and/ or bandleader -- are as familiar as church, easy to replicate and solidly support satire: Consider Fernwood 2 Nite, The Larry Sanders Show, SNL's "Wayne's World" and Space Ghost: Coast 2 Coast (still television's most reliably hilarious half-hour) -- even David Letterman's Late Show, with its affectionate disdain for the promotional mechanics of show biz, is a kind of talk-show takeoff, the ironic rock on which the likes of Conan O'Brien's Late Night (the venue Letterman abandoned in moving to CBS) and Comedy Central's The Daily Show are founded. In this same school, this Academy of Dave, where smoking in the boys' room, messing around under the bleachers, stealing stuff from the science lab, acting out in class and spending a lot of time in the vice principal's office are all part of the curriculum, we find Tom Green, a -- what shall we call him? -- comic-provocateur out of Ottawa and the host of MTV's The Tom Green Show, which has just begun a run of new episodes. Picked up in January from Canada's Comedy Network, which in turn picked it up from Ottawa's cable access, the series has become one of MTV's highest-rated shows, and Green, a bearded beanpole who resembles the spawn of Andy Dick and Dave Grohl, is celebrity enough to have been signed to pitch Pepsi. It is arranged as a talk show, though guests are few, unfamous and quickly dispensed with, the better to let Green be Green: a troublemaker. Preternaturally cooperative sidekick Glenn Humplik -- like second sidekick Phil Giroux (who sits at the back of the set drinking coffee and laughing), an old friend -- gets most of Green's attention, and is regularly embarrassed, discommoded and played pranks upon. He was, for example, made to play "pickle roulette" and eat a pickle that might have been marinating in urine, in a kind of payback for a teenage practical joke of his own. (Most of his trials are designed to "teach him a lesson.")
The real meat of the show, however, consists of the segments that follow Green out of this upsetting clubhouse into the real world, where he conducts what he's termed "an interesting study in human nature," more or less by acting like a really big, undisciplined 10-year-old -- commandeering a store's PA system, paying for things with thousands of pennies, riding a cow through a market, sucking milk from an udder. The point is supposedly to see what the world will put up with -- but people act pretty much as you expect they might when, say, a microphone topped with shit is pushed into their face. When Green paints his folks' house plaid, or fills it with farm animals, or throws the severed head of a cow into their bed in the middle of the night, or grills them in specific terms about their sex life, what's amusing, or amazing, isn't their pretty normal reaction, but rather the spectacle of a son who would treat his parents so. Green's own limit is what the show is really about.
In its grossness, its lighthearted cruelty and the indisputably disgusting lengths to which the star is willing to go for a laugh -- which you may take as bravery or pathology -- The Tom Green Show is very much an entertainment of the '90s; but its roots curl down to Steve Allen and Soupy Sales, Allen Funt and Andy Kaufman, and to Letterman, of course, who perfected the modern annoying stunt. Like them, Green was born for TV, but he is not yet in their league, and the spastic extremity of his shtick suggests a Bobcat Goldthwait or Emo Phillips career span, and the one joke upon which the show is predicated is bound eventually to pall. But I must say that so far he makes me laugh.
Also employing the talk-show format is FX's The Dick and Paula Celebrity Special, which, like Larry Sanders, takes place both on and off camera; this is a cartoon, however, rendered in the same loosely performed and barely animated style (called SquiggleVision) that creator Tom Snyder -- not that Tom Snyder -- employs for Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist and Home Movies, and it benefits greatly, as do those fine shows, from the vocal talents of H. Jon Benjamin (Ben on Dr. Katz) and Jonathan Katz (the doctor on ditto). The titular Dick and Paula (the actually married Richard Snee and Paula Plum) host an ill-attended program in Worcester, MA, on which the guests are likely as not such blasts from the past as Charles Darwin, the Marquis de Sade and Oedipus. (Paula: "So you don't think there's such a thing as an Oedipus complex?" Oedipus: "Well, I have one.") Paul Revere, forever being "bumped," has become a fixture of the Green Room. It's an old-fashioned kind of comedy -- the sketch-interview goes back at least to Allen's Alley -- reminiscent in substance of Brooks and Reiner's 2,000-Year-Old Man and, in the rhythm and music of the voices, of Nichols and May. As an old-fashioned guy, I find it funny, smart and strangely soothing.
Showtime's big Bonnano: A Godfather's Story, a nearly five-hour dramatization of the century-spanning life of Mafia chieftain Joseph Bonanno -- "an epic miniseries event" is how the flacks flog it -- is in many respects a superior TV movie. The period work is unusually convincing; the players seem, largely, to occupy the actual past and not a studio backlot. (Montreal stands in handsomely for everywhere; Italy partially represents itself.) Its length allows for unhurried drama and realistic human detail. The acting -- Martin Landau and Edward James Olmos are the big American names in a mostly Canadian cast -- is generally fine. One might carp about the inconsistency of accents, but that's a small and common thing.
What is a problem, and one that becomes more apparent as the hours accumulate, is the film's uncritical partiality. Based on books by Bonanno and by his son, Bill (who serves here as an executive producer), along with interviews of old Joe by screenwriter Thomas Michael Donnelly (who wrote and directed the excellent A Soldier's Sweetheart), it offers itself, loudly and proudly, as an inside view of the mob, straight from the horse's head -- mouth, I mean. But the picture is all self-justification, a magnificent whitewash that does not so much glorify crime as minimize it; these characters hardly seem criminals at all, just a kind of especially proactive Rotary Club. Bonanno himself is played (by Bruce Ramsay and Tony Nardi in youth and middle age, with elderly Landau narrating the film-long flashback) as a mix of Buddha and Batman. And the moral superiority of his family and friends is underlined, in a cheesy but not unusual bit of dramaturgy, by making them handsome and dignified while their enemies -- from rival mobsters to the cops to the Kennedys -- are pictured as ugly and gross, or simply dishonorable. Honor and tradition are endlessly, talismanically extolled, as if they represented absolute goods and were not the cause of much of the world's bloodiest misery. A well-made but simple-minded movie. Take with a pillar of salt.
Embrace wholly, on the other hand, Restless Spirits, a "Showtime Original Picture for All Ages," in which a troubled Canadian teen endeavors to help the ghosts of two French aviators, downed in a pond near Grandma's house, complete their unfinished 1927 flight from Paris to New York. (There was such a flight, and such a disappearance.) While the film's underwiring is antique and its fabric familiar -- an unhappy young girl in new surroundings, a strange younger brother, some nasty kids across the way, a boy she doesn't like at first but will, spirits in need, adults who threaten to ruin everything, and a plot baked from equal parts E.T. and The Canterville Ghost -- it is uncommonly well done, with moments of real mystery, a clarity of image rare for television, and dialogue that resembles the way people actually talk (and don't always listen). Some fine actors speak it, including Marsha Mason and Lothaire Bluteau (Jesus of Montreal), but none better than 13-year-old Vancouverite Juliana Wimbles, all clouds and sunlight and just as natural.
THE TOM GREEN SHOW | MTV Thursdays at 10:30 p.m.
THE DICK AND PAULA CELEBRITY SPECIAL FX | Premieres Tuesday, July 20, 10 p.m.
BONANNO: A GODFATHER'S STORY Showtime | Sunday, July 25Monday, July 26
RESTLESS SPIRITS | Showtime Sunday, August 1, 8 p.m.
Copyright Robert Lloyd © 2000 and 2011