Spots of Time

August 26, 2003

Televised Regrets

This week’s column was scheduled to be on my recent experience in a sensory depravation floatation tank – a story that is more than halfway written at this very moment. However, instead of being able to finish it, I’m finding myself turning around in my chair every two minutes and staring at the television, alternating between stunned amazement, extreme sympathy and abject horror.

The subject of my attention is “Australian Idol – The Bad, The Mad and the Ugly,” a “special” showing highlights of "reject" audition tapes from thousands of young Aussie hopefuls wanting to be the next singing sensation. Hypnotized by the painfully horrible singing, unbelievable outfits and stinging judges commentary, my flatmates and are physically unable to avert our eyes. While Rick is laughing his ass off, I’m cringing each time I see another poor kid baring his soul and being ripped to shreds – even if his voice does make me want to run for the hills.

Torn between my looming deadline and the train wreck happening behind me, I finally abandoned my floatation tank storyline in favor of musings about that which was currently keeping my attention – Australian television.

When I first came to Australia I was intrigued by the diversity of Australian television. Unlike American TV, where 99.9% of the programming is “Made in the USA,” much of Australian television is imported from the US and the UK. Initially I found it refreshing. Not only was I learning about Aussie programming, I was also getting a taste of the UK – and, as a bonus, could still see some of my favorite shows from back home.

Unfortunately, my interest soon waned. Try as I might, I could not find myself drawn to even one of the Aussie television programs. “Neighbors,” an evening soap that launched the careers of both Kylie Minogue and Natalie Imbrulia, was dull and predictable. “Home and Away” another evening serial, was full incredibly bad actors and actresses. My hopes hung on “The Secret Life of US” for a while – in vain. As popular now as Melrose Place was during its heyday, I found it poorly written and completely dull. Try as I might – and I did watch it weekly for a month – I could not get interested in any of the characters or storylines. And, the same goes for dozens of other programs I sampled throughout my 9 months in the country.

In all fairness, I should explain that between work and travel, I only average, at best, a few hours of television per week – and mostly out of the corner of my eye while someone else has it on in the background. As such, my cursory study of Aussie television is not really a fair assessment of the industry. Other people will tell you "The Footy Show" is hilarious, that "McCloud's Daughters" is wonderful or that I just haven't watched the right programs. And, maybe they are right. Still, one would think that the odds were in my favor to find at least one show that captured my attention. Unfortunately not. But then the British surprised me.

Truthfully, I had planned to give all the British programs a miss right away – like most Americans, I find that I just don’t “get” most British television humor – at least those that I had seen in the US (can any one say “Benny Hill?”). Though there were a few exceptions - programs like Absolutely Fabulous and Monty Python spring to mind - I wasn't really a fan of much programming from the UK.

But, then I got lucky. Randomly one evening I started watching a British import entitled “The Kumars at No. 42!” A combination sitcom and talk show, the program focuses on the Kumar family, an upper class Indian family living in the UK. The adult son, Sanjeev is desperate to move out of his parent’s house, but his family has built him a television studio in their backyard where he hosts his own talk show – “Sanjeev!” All guests coming on his show (real people from the non-sitcom world) must pass through the house and the questioning of Sanjeev’s parents and racy grandma – always in character – before coming on to his show. But they aren’t safe there – all three sit on the couch next to the interviewee and interviewer and provide a running commentary – much to Sanjeev’s dismay.

While it sounds bizarre, I found it really very funny – and completely unique in concept. The Aussies already have their own version – “Greeks on the Roof” and the US is not far behind. Turns out NBC recently shelled out $6 million dollars for the rights to the concept of “No. 42.” I’m very curious to see how the American’s do this one. I’m picturing Kato Kaylan hosting a talk show from OJ’s pool house, with real guests being interviewed while on floaties in the water.

But, I digress.

Turning my attention back to the “Australian Idol” special I found it hard to laugh along with my flatmates – as horribly funny as some of the auditions were to those not intimately involved with the contestants. Some of it was the scathing judges commentary – everything from “That voice should come with a government warning” to “Between the two of you there is not enough talent for even one of you (regarding twins)” to “The only good thing I can say about him is this – at least he isn’t a twin.” More than one contestant broke down in tears, either immediately or after they left the judges view.

But the bigger issue for me was that the “reject” audition tapes were being shown at all. While some of the auditions were clearly jokes or bets being fulfilled, most of the kids auditioning were very serious about wanting to be taken seriously – and crushed when they realized their dreams of singing were not going to come true. And now, to add insult to injury, their failure was being broadcast all across the country. Well, to me that just seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

But maybe that is because I am too close to this particular situation. Maybe it is because not only can I sympathize with these kids, but I can empathize with them as well.

You see, about five years ago, on a whim and much younger and dumber than I am today, I decided to submit an audition tape to “The Real World” on MTV. I had forgotten all about it until I started watching the special. I’m quite sure I didn’t read the fine print in the application form, and I’m guessing that somewhere in the bottom, in really tiny 8-point type, is a sentence that explains that all tapes are the property of MTV – for use as they see fit – in perpetuity.

I’m dreading the day - when and if it ever arrives – that my tape finds the light of day. Sure, I’m not singing on it, and I know that whatever I wore isn’t even close to as hideous as some of the clothes I’ve just seen. However, watching the auditions for Australian Idol, broadcast nationwide, with side commentary from both the judges and the contestants, all I know is this – I WANT MY TAPE BACK.

Um, I don’t suppose anyone knows someone at MTV that might be able to go on a reconnaissance mission for me? Please? Anyone?