What starts out as critique of entertainment exploitation of children and U.S. cultural shibboleths ends as anti-PC masturbation.
Wonder Showzen, writes Bill Gibron for DVD Verdict, "basks in the baneful and jumps on the jugular of political correctness." Wonder Showzen does usually go for the PC jugular, but more often than not in Season Two -- now available on DVD -- these jumps fall flat. Not only are the kids-cultural targets obvious, but so is the show's self-satisfaction.
That it's all so very meta is established in the show's opening. Here, to the lame soundtrack of a chorus of children tra-la-la-ing, "Oh my Lord, it's a kid's show," archival footage establishes how children have been regularly exploited for amusement. One precious little darling stands against a wooden wall, hands clasped to her face like Shirley Temple, as an off-screen circus performer impales long knives into the wall around her pretty curls. Two young boys stand with a foot-long piece of what looks like twisted paper held between their teeth as a cowboy with a bullwhip snaps the paper in half.
But US cultural exploitation of children goes much deeper than these entertainment industry spectacles. We see one crying, frightened child on Santa's lap, a snapshot from a family photo album that, when juxtaposed here, questions just whose "happiness" is chronicled. Most politically pointed, we are given a snippet of JFK Jr.'s brave little salute at his father's funeral, followed quickly by news footage of a mob of young African children chanting in the streets (protesting? celebrating? the context is voided).
This opening sets up Wonder Showzen's protracted critique of how U.S. culture routinely abuses children and images of children to relay some "larger" moral truths about naïvete, trust, and bravery, for adult self-knowledge and satisfaction.
It's an often ugly picture. Combined with bodily function humor and political targets (racism, political demagoguery, and pharmaceutical industry avarice), Season Two, as the DVD box cover and parental warning before each episode asserts, is "Not suitable for children." Not suitable for children to watch, perhaps, but apparently perfectly suitable for some children to participate in as performers and exemplars of the above mentioned "larger" moral truths.
The cast of Wonder Showzen includes two types of performers. The first is a stable of five muppety characters and the second a changing roster of child actors who interact with the puppets and are interviewed on camera or interview real people in various contexts. The accusation could be made that by using these children, series creators Vernon Chatam and John Lee participate in precisely the kinds of exploitations they critique. Nevertheless, the incorporation of the kids and their perspectives returns some agency to them, suggesting that they're never as "innocent" (or "stupid") as "we" might demand.
One regular segment, "Q and A," elicits responses from the kids on a variety of abstract topics (while some regularly returning child actors, like Evan Seligman, Ryan Simpkins, and Trevor Heins are credited, most are not). In the episode "Body," the children are asked "What is a hero?" One boy asks, "Isn't that short for Hiroshima?" Others respond: "America's greatest mirage," "Whoever dies for my cause," and "All the soldiers who fought for our right to say "fuck" on TV." Theirs are provocative and pointed responses, all the more politically charged for coming from the mouths of babes. (The DVD extra "Mish-mosh" features "Q and A" segments cut from the original episodes, none of which, however, add much in the way of further critique and mostly demonstrate good editorial choices.) The question looms, however, whether these are really the responses of roughly 10-year-old children, and to what extent they are prompted by the producers.
Wonder Showzen's point is precisely that we use children to advance our own political projects and moral agendas. Recently the college campus where I teach was infiltrated by masses of anti-choice abortion activists with kids in tow. These little "right-to-lifers" carried posters of aborted fetuses and implored passerby not to "murder" their brothers and sisters. In comparison the snarky attitudes of the Wonder Showzen kids seem far less the product of abuse or exploitation.
The meta meta stuff is perhaps most successful in the regular segment "Beat Kids," a series of on the street interviews conducted by the "Wonder Showzen Kids," whose title is also a sly, "ironic," injunction ("Beat Kids" outtakes are also included in the DVD set as another extra that, like "Mish-mosh" doesn't add anything significant to the overall season). The "Beat Kids" segment in the "Body" episode places Evan Heins at a Miss Connecticut beauty pageant. As he surveys the goings on he muses about "How much [one contestant] had to puke to fit into that dress?" and opines "I think I know why the terrorists hate us." Heins queries one contestant: "Would you kick a pony in the face to end world hunger?" When the beauty says she would not, he retorts, "You'd let millions of people die to save one stupid pony from pain?" The contestant's befuddled face shows she knows she's trapped. There's no right answer here, and the "Beat Kids" segments demonstrate the often ridiculous rhetorical "options" in contemporary moral discourse.
This indictment is furthered in episodic themes. The episode "Knowledge," brought to us by "knowledge, Middle America, and one thing of corn," features a "Middle America" puppet that comes straight out of the last presidential election map. Middle America here is, naturally, red in color, has buck teeth, and speaks George W. Bush-ese. He's come to Wonder Showzen to "make some words" at the kids, and his commentary consists of variation on "Gip... gilp, hooey... and oh, yeah, Texas." That is at least until Middle America realizes the godless liberalism of the Wonder Showzen world, which he surmises to be a result of the denizens never having been "clipped."
Here Middle America literally castrates liberal dissent, and he takes over the show to produce more "appropriate" content. The result is "Horse Apples," a Hee-Haw-like sketch comedy show filled with white-trash humor and racist jokes ("I'm not racist; I've lynched some of my best friends!"). It's all just a little bit obvious (even if the "Beat Kids" segment that follows it, in which Heins interviews a group of middle-age Texan white guys who WS test marketed "Horse Apples" to and who liked it, is most excellent), and signals just where Season Two begins to spin out of control, or perhaps spiral down into its own smugness.
The last two episodes of the season finalize Wonder Showzen's descent into irrelevance. "Mathematics" is an entire episode of "Horse Apples." Okay, so the test-marketed Middle Americans "liked" some of the show-within-a-show, the critique of such ignorance and intolerance built into the first "Beat Kids" segment more than made the point. "Mathematics" offers no such framing, and a full 22 minutes of unrelenting hick shtick sediments WS's self-satisfied superiority.
The season finale, "The Clarence Special Report on Compelling Television," furthers Wonder Showzen's navel-gazing. Its structure is taken from a regular episodic short segment in which the blue hand puppet Clarence pesters people on the street to distraction and sometimes violence on a variety of topics; the shiftiness of notions of time on the arrival of the Chinese new year, the ethics of bootlegging WS rip-offs. For the finale the segment has been turned into an entire episode in which Clarence queries people about "What's wrong with TV?" and "Is quality TV possible?"
Yes, yes, we get it. Is Wonder Showzen quality TV? Or is it precisely what's wrong with TV, and from whose perspective? There's no single answer possible, even though WS intimates that in its "wit," we might discover "quality television." Consider the disc design: the main menu to disc two is set up like a warped version of the board game "Candyland." After some navigation, you reach a pot of gold at the end of the game. When you select the "prize," you are rewarded with a roughly 20 minute montage of swooping cameras and jump cuts from "Horse Apples," featuring the hillbilly characters guffawing and a-goo-goo-gooing. Worse, the disc locks out all skip, fast forward, or even stop functions. It's annoying, infuriating, and demonstrates exactly where Wonder Showzen: Season Two goes wrong. What starts out as critique of entertainment exploitation of children and U.S. cultural shibboleths ends as mere anti-PC masturbation.