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ANALYSIS: REFLECTIONS ON FOXY BOXING: WHY WAS FOX'S TACKY SCHLOCKFEST SUCH
A KNOCKOUT? IT'S THE PAYBACK, STUPID!
Well, it wasn't exactly news or sports, but...Fox's March 13 broadcast of Celebrity Boxing certainly made programming waves. Not only did this novelty schlockfest featuring D-list celebs (Tonya Harding, Todd Bridges, Rob "Vanilla Ice" Van Winkle) donning the pillows and pounding each other's lights out soundly thump (15.5 million viewers!) the vaunted Emmy-winner The West Wing, it created one of the only true "water cooler" programs since the first season of Survivor. Conversation, I am told, stopped dead in pricey restaurants with TVs. Everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to know where you were when the wind from Danny Bonaduce's loopy right hand sent Barry Williams wobbling. Clearly, the network of the buffoonish Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? is onto a big-time ratings winner and we are destined to see dozens of other publicity-hungry tanktown Oliviers lace 'em up for glorified TV slap fights. Romantic fantasy was a wash-out. So....?
Surely by now you know the results. In fact, a blow-by-blow fistic analysis of the amateurish, backalley brawls would be pointless (although Bridges seems to know how to throw a hook). But this all cries out for sociological analysis. In the words of skater-turned-brawler Tonya Harding's kneecap victim Nancy Kerrigan: WHHHHYYYYYYYY? WHHHHYYYYYYYYYYY......?
Even though the sport of boxing has hit the skids in recent years (and only begun a slow rehab), clearly there is an elemental human fascination with two people assaulting each other. Just start a fight among the boozed-up punters at your local sports bar's Shooter Madness night and watch what happens. (Or, for that matter, schedule a Mike Tyson photo op...) People will be drawn to the fracas like moths to a flame. We want to see people starching each other, whether it's Bernard Hopkins and Felix Trinidad working at the high end of the spectrum, or Old Shoeless Jake and a Tallahassee sheriff on Cops at the low. But more important than "why" is the "how" and the "who."
The average human superego, that part of homo sapiens sapiens' brain that responds to rules and social mores, insists on boundaries and regulations. Even the average Fox viewer would not be base enough to watch Celebrity Snakepit, bitter enemies tossed into a Thunderdome-type situation where biting, scratching, clawing and all kinds of grievous bodily harm were allowed. It's just not civilized. The twin gagfests of The Chair and The Chamber showed that people just weren't going to cotton to random torture of the desperate and the pathetic. Toughman on FX has gone the way of Enron, and worm-chugging on Fear Factor has gotten so stale they've had to submerge playmates in ice water to rekindle some of the thrill. Hell, viewers even got tired of watching the porky auto-detailers and drywall workers on Jerry Springer simulate Saturday night pier-sixers. We spend a lot of money for our cable, dammit, and we demand a certain level of civility and sophistication. That's what Michael Buffer and his tuxedo are for! The adherence to the rules and rituals of real sport (genuine judges, robes, gloves, ringwalks, "tales of the tape," etc.) are designed to reassure us that, no, these are not the End Times and we have not descended into abject barbarism. This is a sporting contest, overseen by the power and the glory of The State (even if it is the State of California). And that makes it all right to watch clueless, bandy-legged Republican agitator Paula Jones run and hide her fresh nose-bob behind the referee like his name was Daddy. It gives thangs a touch of, well, class...
But even more important than the how is the who.
Although toffee-nosed culture vultures might pooh-pooh Fox's presentation, in fact, there was quite a sophisticated and rigorous agenda at work. Fox's subtext for the fights was plainly Malfeasors Who Have Paid Their Debt Punishing Enemies of the State Who Got Away. Them that's suffered for their wrongs take it out on them that's got off. In this way, Celebrity Boxing fills a critical cultural middle ground between CourtTV live life-or-death trial coverage and Oprah/Maury/Leeza/Ricki's wheezy apology-fests, where knuckleheads get a hug and a tissue and walk away scot-free.
In 1998, Michael Madsen (doing his screw-loose psychopath-with-a-code thing) starred in a hysterically gruesome little ABC treasure called Vengeance Unlimited that was The Equalizer-meets-Reservoir Dogs. It didn't fare well, because America was too busy being "uplifted" and "delighted" by "very special" shows about angels. But a score of crazy suicide pilots and a bunch of demolished skyscrapers changed all that. We as a people have discarded all that teary-eyed forgiveness and demand plain Old Testament Payback. I mean, how many military reality shows full of scary-looking crackers are on the Nets' fall sched? Note that the creative folk at Fox are way, way too smart to be upfront about what they're doing, as this would invite endless rounds of morning-show excuse-making and talking-head blather. Good for them! And for us!
Paula Jones was one of the prime movers behind the vast-right-wing-conspiracy to bring down Billy Jeff Clinton, and both her mewlings over flashed willies and the seemingly endless parade of high-profile court maneuverings her handlers engaged in not only cheapened the media and our political discourse, but took hours and hours away from supermodel tan lines and football injury reports. Who better to bring this neo-con sacred cow back to earth than a white-trash honey whose ambition really cost her? BAM! Vanilla Ice's phony-ass white-gangsta lean, wooden-legged dance moves and ridiculously crap tuneage polluted what might have been the next great American folk music. And those pictures of him and that low-rent bikini model in the limo with the bottle of honey? How's about a real brutha who's been to the joint dropping a little reality on this soul-patched biscuithead? THWAP! Barry Williams is, in fact, beloved by millions for his portrayal of Greg Brady on the goofy sitcom The Brady Bunch, but he does have that non-union revival tour of The Sound of Music to answer for. Let's bring in the "disgraced" 70s ABC child sitcom star to do the honors. WHUP! We the People will be avenged!
In fact, Fox, taking its cue from the spate of alternately loudmouthed and dithering TV judge shows, has done us a tremendous public service. The network, with a nominal fee, has persuaded various social miscreants anxious for a last gasp of publicity to step into the arena and submit to some good old-fashioned street justice. Ever think if I could only have five minutes alone with that guy when someone offends your sense of honor, dignity, decorum or uprightness? Of course you have! And now, thanks to our surrogates, lovably scruffy delinquents like Danny Bonaduce and Tonya Harding, those five minutes can be ours! Brilliant! Be honest. How much more satisfying is it to watch Vanilla Ice's head flapping in the breeze like that of a bobble-head doll than to listen to Martin Sheen intoning pious homilies about liberty and justice over a pardoned Thanksgiving turkey?
No wonder Foxy Boxing won the ratings night. Sign me up for a ringside seat to this flesh-and-(not nearly enough)-blood Celebrity Deathmatch!
Given Fox's secret agenda, there is a whole universe of sorry brokedick social criminals who can be administered a righteous pummeling on national TV. Cultural criminals like the Macarena guys, Pauly Shore, Thomas "Painter of Light" Kinkade, Puck from the Real World, and the Zima Guy. Political washouts like Gary Condit, Baby Newtie Gingrich, and George "Turncoat" Stephanopolous. Sports annoyances like John McEnroe, Marty McSorley, and Albert "Itchyfingers" Connell. Media irritants like John McLaughlin, Bob Novak, Alan Dershowitz and Michael Moore. We all have our favorites. There is almost no limit (other than that of financial need and shamelessness) to the assortment of folks who need to get their asses whupped and the posse who would be willing to do it for the low five-figures. Would a Monica-Linda Tripp ten-rounder or an O.J.-Chris Darden twelve be among the very most watched broadcasts ever? Need you ask? How about Joey Buttafuocco rearranging pretty little cradle-robbing smartass Rob Lowe's TV-star features? I'd sure as heck be tuning in! Hey, listen up, Fox. If you don't do it, HBO or Showtime will!
Frankly, it's all a part of the healing process. And the world has more than enough heels to sustain three or four prime-time seasons and the odd two-hour sweeps-week special. DscribeDC sez: It's Clobberin' Time! Pass the red meat...
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