[20 November 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They say that love makes the world go round. They’re wrong. The only thing driving this planet’s polar axis besides religious fundamentalism and solar winds is pure and unfettered rivalry: the fine art of competition. Though we hate to admit it, and wish we could all live in a climate of shared karmic glory where everyone gets a trophy and results are divided into “winners” and “almost winners”, we as a people thrive on contest. We constantly base our value on what others think of us, almost as much as we value our desire to kick their asses.
Maybe that’s why we love the competition-oriented game show so much. Whether it’s the ‘50s classic Beat the Clock or Spike TV’s comic reconfiguration of the Japanese favorite Takeshi’s Castle (renamed MXC in its new sophomoric skin,) it’s apparently a part of humanity’s entertainment make-up to gravitate toward programs poised with surreal amounts of individual death defying. While there are dozens of examples, both bawdy and basic, from all four corners of the globe (including a few more mindbenders from those arcane Asians) none can hold a stack of steel hip pins to the borderline lethal limbering of the Latin lunacy known as El Gran Juego De La Oca (“The Big Game of the Goose”).
From 1993 to 1996, this staple of Madrid TV (and exported to anyone lucky enough to have a Spanish language station in their city), was a three-hour weekly extravaganza that left modern shows like Survivor feeling like a rejected singles junket to Club Med. Fear Factor could only wish it was as wicked and wild as this no-holds-barred blast of gambling, physical challenges, and the fine art of computerized dice rolling. Unlike other examples of the game show as health gambit genre, El Gran Juego actually flaunted the notion of potential perishing during each and every show. They even had resident Undertakers at the ready to whisk you off to the Great Beyond; both figuratively and, one imagines, literally.
Everything about the show was gaudy, garish and guaranteed to fire off synapses of unadulterated human-vs.-human antagonism. The board consisted of an entire soundstage, laid out like a combination kid show village and Olympic dive pool. A collection of 63 numbered squares formed a kind of conical pathway weaving in and out of the various stunt locations. There were shortcuts and hidden “dangers”, and saucy, spicy skin. El Gran Juego De La Oca featured a scantily clad collection of bodacious body types female and male known as the “Chicos/Chicas”. During the show, these sex object staff members would run out onto the playing field and assist with a challenge, interfere with a competitor, and basically shake their ratings makers for the already hopped up home viewers.
This combination of daredeviling and peep showboating with the added ingredient of everpresent physical harm in the background was a true cultural phenomenon. It tapped into the ADD like entertainment needs of its audience, a peculiar populace who liked their amusement to combine many divergent and dissimilar elements. Of course, guiding all this goofiness required equally erratic on-air talent. El Gran Juego proved almost conclusively that MTV did not own the copyright to all of the crappy television hosts in the ‘90s.
The terrific trio of talkers for the show included Emilio Aragon, who was kind of a combination of Tom Bergeron and Pee Wee Herman, the far too perky Lydia Perez, and the ditzy drama queen Lydia Bosch each an engagingly idiosyncratic individual. Ms. Perez was hornier than a beach bound Ibiza babe, busily groping all the guys (call it her own manual ‘machismo’ test). Emilio just stood around in his tux and tennis shoes and smiled his plastic grin while Ms. Bosch screeched like a banshee at the many random bugs and beasts that accented some of the stunts. They even had their own chorus line, the novelly named “Oquettes”, who looked like second tier Las Vegas showgirls meshed with visitors from the local “gentleman’s club”.
In addition, you’d get an athlete celebrating a recent win, sundry advertising icons, actors in bad monster masks, a fey effete non-PC sissy named “Sock Man” (hmmm) and “Las Ocas”, actual live geese who gussied up the set with their droppings and blue-murder squawks. All of this brazen ballyhoo summed up the show’s kitchen sink approach perfectly: perhaps none more than show ‘champion’ Maxtor. Kind of a peacocked presentation of the Terminator, this generally muscular yet lithe black man, in silver shorts and a hokey head mask that suggests a drag queen Jason Voorhees, brought down the house every time he took the stage. His Grace Jones meets Gladiator poses pushed the very limits of the show’s already murky demographics. It seems that, along with jeopardy, a sense of kitsch and camp was paramount for any Hispanic variety showcase (examples abound all over Univision and Telemundo).
But it wasn’t just the peculiar personalities that drew fans to the series each and every week. Nor was it the lure of prizes, money, and glimpses of luscious Latina flesh. No, El Gran Juego De La Oca was all about the competition. This was the original ‘X’ games not just for extreme but for the possible placement of said consonants over one’s eyes. Players were not well-toned titans with body fat ratios at supermodel levels. Almost all were miserably unprepared for the Herculean challenges that lie ahead. Truth be told, a lot of what made El Gran Juego De La Oca such a mesmerizing experience was watching the adult equivalent of junior high schoolers stare down the show’s exercise equivalent of the dreaded rope climb. You just knew someone was going to get hurt, you just didn’t know when.
Not everything was a threat to life and limb, at least, not initially. Certain spaces held just plain nastiness. Number 19 was typically reserved for something called “Restaurante Chino”, which required a contestant to dine on some of the most disgusting cuisine this side of Jack in the Box [one lucky player had the (mis)fortune of eating a whole cocked rat prepared in sweet and sour sauce. As the gang at Hee-Haw says, “YUM! Yum!”]. Over at spot 52 stood the Sweeny Todd of Spain, Flequi, and his hair harming “Chop Shop”. During this bonkers bit of barbaric barbering, players were asked three trivia questions. Get them right and the freaked-out Flequi would leave you alone. Miss one almost always the incredibly difficult last question and the crazed cutter took the electric razor to your cabesa.
There were chances to interact (shamelessly) with the Oquettes, a place to play a money-depleting, foolhardy game of “Cruel Roulette” and an always fun visit to a real life den of snakes. But what really made El Gran Juego De La Oca‘s legendary reputation were mean spirited, physically challenging, and questionably safe stunts. There was no beating the clock here. Failing at one of these mad missions could cost you your life. Now, not all tasks were insurance coverage canceling. Some, like the “Car Wash” merely required you to thread a ribbon in and around a car while the area filled up with foam. Others, like “Knife Guy Challenge” (which asked you to aid in a cutlery throwing act) and “Dance Contest” (kind of self-explanatory, don’t you think) subbed the harrowing for the humiliating. But Oca understood the inherent lure of danger and it’s addictive psychological satisfaction, and poured on the precariousness like buckets of cockroaches on a tied up contestant.
One recurring challenge required people to be submerged in a car with nothing but scuba gear and an electric saw to find a way out. Another game had players locked in a Plexiglas box as the container filled with sand. People were lashed to vehicles and driven around at insane speeds while their opponents scuttled around human sized ant farms. One of the most bizarre offerings required the competitor to rescue a lady from a coffin suspended over a swimming pool while surrounded by fire on all side. Each example of these phobias gone formal provided the vicarious thrill of “there before the grace go I” godlessness. What better way to get your rivalry rocks off than by seeing your fellow man (or woman) bruised, scorched, and hopefully, squelched.
El Gran Juego De La Oca was all about the misfortune of others and the psychological enjoyment derived from same. Indeed, two of the oddest stunts involved ideals that were more socially than physically damaging. In “Witch/Fernando” players found themselves face-to-face with horribly dirty, disgusting fat people covered in food and filth, desperate to lay a little love lip action on them, and “Alpaca” placed you in incredibly close confines to a remarkably pissed-off llama. There was no threat from the animal’s agile limbs, but Alpacas have a wicked capacity for spitting. Even nature was out to get you in Oca‘s obtuse universe.
Yet after all the bug showers and kissing/slapping contests, obvious product placement where food mascots would actually participate in the game (“nothing soothes a severed spine better than Nestle’s Quik!”) and tons of other bone crunching, limb-snapping strangeness, a unusual type of catharsis occurred. Winners (usually determined by a convenient, last-minute remote control roll of the CGI dice) bore a badge of bragging rights that resulted more from stupidity than skill. They weren’t “better” than the other players, just lucky enough to land on the last space without succumbing to the show’s inhumane and hampering abuses. The home audience felt better knowing that happenstance, not heart, was being rewarded and the karmic balance of competition was preserved. That is, until another three hour marathon of masochism the following week.
Apparently, post-millennial whiners can’t hack Oca levels of peril. Survivor requires nothing more than the ability to face obstacles like interpersonal squabbling and acrid body odor. That’s nothing compared to Maxtor getting medieval on your hopeless hinder. Fear Factor and Dog Eat Dog may filch a great deal of their dialectic from the show’s stunt driven competition, but they only push embarrassment so far. They don’t dare muss with their amateur athlete’s tresses, or make them kiss a fat chick. No, only one show now lost along that far off and distance broadcast signal understood the true nature of balls to the wall competition. It was disgusting. It was dirty. And it was demented. But most of all, El Gran Juego De La Oca was immensely satisfying. Who knew that goose down, not bitter resentment or a desire to triumph, fueled the most frightening and fierce competition of them all.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/gibron2051121/