During World War II, the Army assigned Allen Funt to tape messages for soldiers to send home to their families. He found that the men sounded at ease during rehearsals, but turned tongue-tied once recording started. He solved this problem by secretly taping their rehearsals and using those recordings as the final product. It was from this experience that Funt developed the idea of Candid Camera. The genre of voyeuristic television was born.
Candid Camera has remained in production for most of the past 54 years. During its long run, dozens of rip-offs have come along, currently including NBC’s Spy TV and Fox’s The Jamie Kennedy Experiment. All have imitated Funt’s formula of secretly taping people confronted by unusual circumstances. Now Fox gives us Meet the Marks, another hidden camera-innocent victim program that Fox is promoting as a sitcom with a difference—an average Joe is thrown into a lengthy, prewritten scene and asked to play along. After only one episode, it’s clear that the label “sitcom” is a misrepresentation. Meet the Marks lacks comedy.
Each of the series’ pranks features the same five “sitcom” players, a fictional family consisting of a middle-aged couple, Joe and Cathy (Joe O’Connor and Cathy Shambley), their two grown children, Kaitlin and Patrick (Kaitlin Olson and Patrick Cavanaugh), and Joe’s assistant at his unnamed vocation, Tara (Tara Nulty). Their mission is to guide the “mark,” the poor sucker being duped, not knowing he or she has walked into a “sitcom.” They move him or her from situation to situation and from room to room within the house.
The first episode featured two situations that clearly made the marks uncomfortable and forced them to make moral decisions regarding appropriate behavior under extraordinary pressure. In the first prank, Darrell, a hairdresser, is called to the house to do Kaitlin’s hair before her wedding. While she is in the restroom, he stumbles across the groom making out with Tara in the kitchen. This puts him in a difficult situation as he works on Kaitlin’s hair, and he gently questions the bride-to-be to determine the solidity of her relationship with her fianci. Eventually, Darrell decides to say nothing. As if that’s not enough torture for the man, he is invited to stay for the wedding, where Kaitlin announces in mid-ceremony that she has fallen for Darrell and wants to call off the wedding. She then turns to the stunned man and proposes. After he squirms a little more, the cast lets him in on the joke.
Darrell had it easy compared to the next mark, a computer technician, Kevin, called to the house to fix Cathy’s PC. She has arranged for a neighbor to let the technician into the house, as she has been detained elsewhere. Once inside, he is confronted by a cavorting Joe and Tara, half-dressed and covered with whipped cream. As Cathy pulls into the driveway, Joe dashes upstairs and Tara literally jumps on the confused man, pleading with him to pretend to be her boyfriend. Tara then introduces the man to Cathy as “Steve,” her podiatrist boyfriend. He sheepishly plays along. Again, this isn’t enough. Another neighbor drops in and asks the “podiatrist” for medical advice and then a new man shows up claiming to be the real Steve. All eyes focus on the mark as Cathy demands an explanation from him, and then the joke is revealed.
Obviously, the show owes more to Allen Funt’s legacy than any sitcom. But it diverges from Candid Camera in a crucial way: its pranks go on and on, while Funt’s lasted a few minutes at most and required no deep thought on the part of the victim. A mechanic goes to check the oil under the hood of a car only to find there is no engine. Three people enter an elevator with an unsuspecting foil and all stand facing the wall. Another person puts an envelope in a corner mailbox and is thanked by a voice from within.
Meet the Marks involves more detailed set-ups and demands more from the cast. Fox calls the five regulars “masters of improv,” and it is indeed clear that they are making up the dialogue as they go along. Too bad it’s not very entertaining. In the first prank, cast members occupied the mark’s time by confessing their inner feelings about one another (“I know [the groom] doesn’t love Kaitlin; he wants to be with me”). The second prank had the cast grilling the mark (“So, Steve, what were you and Tara doing in my living room?”). With the cast full of “straight men,” that leaves it up to the mark to provide the punch-line, his or her supposedly hilarious reaction to the set-up.
Here the lengths of the pranks become problematic, since it is apparent within the first few minutes how the “mark” will react. The flamboyant Darrell was all bulging eyes, gaping mouth, and flailing arms, while Kevin reacted more demurely, blushing, lowering his head, and mumbling when unsure what to say. Two minutes of Darrell’s “Oh my God!” and Kevin’s “Oh gee!” expressions were more than sufficient; ten minutes were boring.
Funt’s format allowed numerous responses to the same set-up. A teenaged boy, middle-aged businessman, and elderly grandmother will react differently to a talking mailbox: if one doesn’t make you laugh, the next one might. The makers of Meet the Marks also tape several marks for each scheme, but only one is featured in the show. This approach effectively paints the show into a corner—if the highlighted mark isn’t amusing (the case in the premiere episode), then watching the show is only uncomfortable.
The first episode included brief clips of some of the other marks, a few intended victims who quickly figured out they were on some sort of gag tv show. I found myself wondering about the marks who didn’t make the final cut while watching the protracted pain of the full “skits.” Simply put: a successful tv show doesn’t inspire viewers to contemplate what could have been shown, but wasn’t.