Nostalgia is dangerous in reality television. So much of our relationship to great shows over the past 13 years–or 21 years–has been because a show has been new and surprising, and hit all the right notes for that moment. That was definitely the case with The Joe Schmo Show, which had a brilliant first season that tapped into the moment and sent up the whole genre in a parody that was also a fantastic show.
That was 2003. When Spike announced the new season last year, I wondered, Could they really pull that off again? The answer is a resounding yes. The Joe Schmo: The Full Bounty is not only better than the second season of The Joe Schmo Show, but it manages to be more authentic than a lot of what’s airing on cable right now–despite the fact that a majority of this show is scripted.
The show works because, like all great reality television, there’s something real happening within a constructed context. Here, it’s the reactions of Chase Rogan to the absurdity of the competition and people he’s competing against.
Chase is incredible casting. While I remember season one star Matt Kennedy Gould as naive and nice, Chase is cunning and competitive, and the recent twist of him writing in a notebook all he suspects about the production is one of those great real moments that the producers could never have predicted but which they’ve embraced.
Because the genre has advanced at least to its early teenage years, this season works less of a send-up or parody of reality TV than just raw comedy, but that’s okay. There are more surprises and laughs here than in a CBS sitcom, from the jokes the cast write instead of voting to the interstitials with random shots of things around the house and the sentient ventriloquist dummy. Just having Stan the Interpreter stand in the fountain during the eviction ceremony is consistently hilarious. The editors and camera crews do excellent work with those moments, adding to the comedy with their craft.
Some of the bits really land and some of them don’t. The difference is whether or not they invite Chase to participate, such as his interaction with pretend convicts, or are just something for him to stare at, like the alleged poop in the alleged ashes, which was too much.
What is increasingly not working for me is the anxiety expressed by the cast and producers. I fast-forward through the first three minutes, including producer John Stevens’ scripted recap (“anyone could blow the lid off this thing”), and far too many of the interviews and clips of control room footage do not add to our understanding.
Instead, they get in the way. Karlee’s hilarious Mr. Wentworth breakdown would have been much funnier had it not been interrupted by the “come on, Karlee” from the control room and footage of Stan worrying about her. Just let us laugh at her laughing.
They just reiterate the same point that’s reiterated in the opening sequence and previews–which, by the way, have so far spoiled most of the major moments and made them less surprising. (This is a network thing not confined to Spike, and the desperation to keep viewers by showing them everything over and over again is pure insanity.)
I appreciate that the cast and crew were really on edge the entire production, because it was always on the line. It’s an absolutely amazing challenge to pull off this kind of show, and how they pulled it off is an incredible story. But the way that’s illustrated rarely works. There are just too many, “Is this guy playing us? Does he know?” moments, and they’re exhausting.
I also wish they’d let Chase’s reactions guide them more. The series works best where Chase rises to the absurd occasion: dragging an interpreter and a convict around an obstacle course, tackling a pretend convict and injuring himself, frisking a young man so thoroughly he pretty much fondled him more than someone playing doctor and pretending to conduct a testicular exam.
Those moments always play well, and when you add the unbelievable jokes, you get a surprisingly great reboot of a classic series. Mr. Wentworth? Ralph Garman’s outstanding ego-centric, belittling hosting? Coming inside Lady Justice? More, please.
Every episode, I can’t wait to see what comes next, especially the big reveal when Chase learns the truth. I just hope executive producers J. Holland Moore and John Stevens and their team have already shot a second season, because reality TV needs more of this brand of super-fake reality.