Thursday, June 28, 2007

On the Lot: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

ON THE LOT was more "fun" when it was a train wreck. Now that it's just merely bad than spectactularly bad, it's lost the gawker appeal. Wretched is as wretched does.

A new week means more changes, but first, what's the point of the show being live? I don't recall them making an issue of it in prior weeks, but the live nature of Tuesday's show was stressed. If ever there was a show that could use some fine-tuning in the editing room, this is it.

Once again, the results were delivered differently. Rather than make Jessica suffer for a week awaiting the result that might as well have been given right after she showed her horror short from a tree's perspective, Adrianna Costa and Garry Marshall stopped by the directors' living quarters to dismiss her. I missed if they claimed to have done this the day after the show, not that it matters.

When it comes to contestant interaction in their free time, producer Mark Burnett must have felt he learned his lesson on ROCK STAR: INXS. (The non-performance episodes got shuffled from CBS to VH-1, which indicates the ratings were dreadful.) Such content is practically non-existent on ON THE LOT, although we get maybe a minute of it each week to show the directors' reactions to the judges' comments. Big whoop.

Adrianna reminded us that the six comedies we would be seeing were made in five days. Because nothing guarantees original and quality ideas than rushing a creative project. Documentarian Shalini kicked things off with DR. IN-LAW. A son-in-law accompanies his non-English speaking Chinese father-in-law to the doctor's office. Naturally, the whole time the guy is berated for not being good enough for the old man's daughter. The son-in-law exacts revenge by telling the doctor that his relative needs a rectal exam. The intro package played up how comedy is not in Shalini's comfort zone, but compared to the night's other shorts, hers was not bad. She made good use of perspective and paced it well. Standard operating procedure for ON THE LOT is to employ an easy, vulgar joke when in doubt, and Shalini did not disappoint.

Next was Adam, who never looks comfortable in front of the camera. DISCOVERING THE WHEELS used that old standby of cavemen encountering unfamiliar technology. In this case it was a car. And not just any car but a Ford Mustang. Seriously, this was nothing more than an in-show commercial--and not a particularly good one--for one of the sponsor's vehicles. I shouldn't be surprised that ON THE LOT is attuned to finding the best 30-second advertisement director than a feature filmmaker. Burnett's THE APPRENTICE was oriented for those with marketing savvy more than business skills. All the better to flog the goods in the product placement-laden challenges. Adam's short ultimately didn't make narrative sense, but it probably has enough polish--he tried special effects!--to keep him around another week.

Adam took a page from Will's book and made a short without any dialogue. Will continued to stick with what has worked for him: minimal words for a putative silent film. His NERVE ENDINGS was a darker, grosser comedy about a surgeon who accidentally nicks a guy's brain with his scalpel and then leaves his assistant alone with patient. With the brain exposed, the assistant has fun pressing different parts of the organ to operate the man like a puppet. I didn't think it was funny at all, although there was a good final joke when the head doctor does the same thing to give his second-in-command a remote slap. I don't think that Will reused classical music from one of his other shorts, but I swear that someone in the competition used the exact same selection.

Hilary's deeply unfunny UNDER THE GUN yukked it up over a mother and daughter robbing a sperm bank. They want to make a withdrawal. Ha! Or maybe not. Lin Shaye, best known for her bit parts in the Farrelly brothers' films, played the mom. Hilary's first short showed that she's not exactly fit for humor of discomfort, but I think this one was worse than the short about the woman having to pee on the bus.

David's sex comedy short HOW TO HAVE A GIRL was pretty awful too. The conceit is that the man reads that to have a boy, he should be on top. The woman reads that she should be on top if she's to have a girl. Thus a wrestling match/fight ensues from the bed to the floor. Aside from not being funny, it was disconcertingly violent. That was THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR'S Tatyana Ali in this, right? The short's title doesn't exactly describe it. Come to think of it, neither did Shalini's.

The last director was the all-but-coronated Zach. He keeps talking about wanting to branch out and not be pegged as the special effects guy. Shaking things up for DIE HARDLY WORKING, he became the sound effects guy. The clever title and solid execution of office drones pretending to battle among the cubicles was more than enough to get the judges slobbering over his talent. I'm not saying he's without ability, but there's a big step from pulling off effects and small concepts on the cheap and making a feature film.

Moviemaking and watching are supposed to be fun activities, but ON THE LOT sucks all of the excitement out of it. The title of the show would lead us to believe that we might see the directors working behind the scenes. There's precious little of that. What we did get from the sets tended to be the non-working contestants criticizing the opponents' choices. Burnett, who typically does a good job of building his "characters", has failed miserably in establishing who these people are. The judges often have nothing worthwhile to say and instead opt for sub-American Idol wit or effusive praise.

The game's structure seems to require generating a new short in five days. Bor-ing, at least if they're not going to show us the struggle. Plus, they've hamstrung those directors who aren't writers. That likely accounts for the one-note ideas in these shorts. There's also an implied preference for directors who can do any genre, as if versatility is the most prized attribute. Look at the directors they've had judging the contestants. Most of them, like this week's guest Mark Waters, make the same kinds of films over and over. They don't jump from horror to comedy to costume drama.

Not that anyone with ON THE LOT is listening to me, but to jazz it up, how about having every director make a short from the same script? That would be more revealing of their talents. OK, so that could make repetitive TV. Since they're doing for-hire work anyway, why not provide a pool of scripts for them to select from? Maybe there would be a slight uptick in the base quality, and it would remove their writing skills, or lack thereof, from the equation.

Or ON THE LOT could go THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS route. I'm of a mind that these directors have too much freedom. They'd never get Lars von Trier to do a guest spot on the show, but wouldn't it be great to have him lay down strict rules regarding what the directors can and can't do? Even if he weren't cracking the whip, some limitations might force them to make more creative choices. As it stands, the group as a whole is making the easiest, laziest, and crudest decisions.

Next week brings horror shorts from the other six directors. The horror... As bad as the comedies were, the horror genre sounds like a uniquely terrible idea for two minute shorts.

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