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What I Watched Last Night

Sometimes television is inventive. Most times, though, it's perfectly happy to just invent new ways to eat its young. So the cannibalizaton of American Idol continued Thursday night with an installment on Bravo of Grease: You're The One That I Want!.

I didn't like Grease when it was a movie because two things on my list of Things I Really Don't Like Because They're Stupid are musicals and '50s music. I'm no fan of American Idol either because, well, I got sick of hearing about it long ago. But it's not that I didn't like this snoozer because it's a ripoff of a program I don't particularly like. Ripping off TV shows is a long-honored tradition in American TV, and it's the only reason we got our own versions of the original British Who's Line Is It Anyway and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. No, I didn't like it much because whoever came up with this show is a total failure at ripping stuff off right. The reason Whose Line and Millionaire went over so well is because the Americans hosting the shows were far more interesting than those in England.

In America, personality spells success. Which is why one of the first things Millionaire did when Meredith Viera took over from Regis Philbin was head into the tank.

You're The One That I Want! follows the same formula as Idol: Visit major cities (Thursday night it was Los Angeles and Chicago) and round up a mess of starry-eyed hopefuls to audition for the lead roles of Danny and Sandy in the new Broadway production of Grease. Three Broadway Grease honchos (producer David Ian, choreographer Kathleen Marshall, and Jim Jacobs, who wrote the 1978 movie) replicate the three-person American Idol panel of judge, jury and executioner. Sure, they're all white folk, but Randy Jackson is probably glad equal employment opportunity doesn't require him to be the one who has to put up with "Hopelessly Devoted To You" being screeched a few hundred times.

Similarly, Grease has cast Ian as the show's version of Simon Cowell. He's got the same British accent and toils just as long over his hair, but where Cowell is deliciously mean, Ian's just a big puss. Where Cowell thrives on being constructively terrible to contestants for wasting everyone's time, Ian is just plain polite in dismissing the untalented. Take the appearance of a portly, half-deaf and homely brunette with a speech impediment to audition for the part of Sandy. Instead of being eaten for lunch with her bones spit back at her, the worst this bunch can scrape up are confused glances of this one of those Howard Stern jokes, right?

Heck, Grease has its own Ryan Seacrest, too. He's a Howdy Doody-looking fellow with a plaid shirt and the unfortunate name of Billy Bush. He prowls around backstage and has a word or two with the losers, too.

As the series progresses in the coming weeks, the crowd of finalists go on to Grease Academy, a sort of Broadway singer-dancer boot camp where Lou Gossett Jr. yells at everyone for being queer and eyeballin' him. As the weeks progress, the wheat gets separated from the chaff until the final episode or so where viewers choose the new Danny and Sandy from among the final 12.

I could only endure a half-hour of this stuff, so I went surfing.

* * *

After Thursday's late-night syndicated rerun of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, I can fairly say that it's a good thing President Kennedy's motorcade picked Dealey Plaza in Dallas to motor through instead of Manhattan. That's because Manhattan is one of the few places where a suicide bomber can take a righteous head shot from a sharpshooter's high-powered rifle in the middle of a crowded parade and have not one single person notice. Had it been JFK instead of a mad terrorist, he'd have been to Staten Island before anyone noticed his noggin was missing an important hunk of real estate.

* * *

This week my satellite provider has thrown in a free preview of The History Channel International, so I was able to run across a two-hour program listed simply as Punishment. Although HCI isn't anywhere near the pay-per-view porn channels, I dropped in since this version of The History Channel wasn't beating Hitler or World War II to death.

Punishment was aptly titled, since it chronicled in great detail the methods of torture used in Europe - mostly on accused heretics and treasonists - during the early part of the last millennium. It was a grand tour of The Rack, The Pear, pressing, the Iron Maiden, beheading, and drawing and quartering.

There were, however, milder forms of punishment widely available to the common folk just for the asking that some would probably argue should be just as available today. Take, for instance, the Branks, also known as the Scold's Bridle. This was a metal face mask quite popular in this country throughout the 1600s; more advanced models had a tongue depressor with spurs or sharp edges. Which made talking a bit of a chore. Back in those simpler times, all a husband needed to do was accuse his wife of nagging, and into the Branks she went. It was also kept on hand for women who disagreed with their husbands or exceeded their recommended daily allowance of gossip. If your wife needed additional humiliation, some Branks models had a chain attached to the front so the uppity little witch could be led through the streets or tied to a post.

Today, you can get one of your own at any one of several very charming Old Town boutiques.

Here are a few other tidbits of learning only The History Channel could provide:

* Inquisitors had an official playbook on how to run a respectable, uh, Inquisition. First appearing on the New York Times Best Seller List in 1486, The Malleus Maleficarum was the owner's manual for the identification, prosecution, and dispatching of witches. So if you've been looking for actual proof that you've been right about your mother-in-law all along or just need a special activity to spice up your Super Bowl party should the commercials really suck this year, you can download your own version of The Malleus Maleficarum here in convenient PDF and text formats.

Once you do, jump directly to "The Text" portion for the good stuff.

* It took two to three hours to completely burn a woman accused of heresy at the stake. More than 13,000 women were dispatched this way before the practice petered out during the 1600s. Some European nations would strangle the unfortunate lasses at the stake before lighting her up, but not many.

* Drawing and quartering was a special brand of British hospitality reserved solely for those who plotted to overthrow the King, and Mel Gibson for managing to undo 691 years of amnesia over William Wallace in three hours. It's called being "drawn and quartered" because your belly was sliced open, your intestines drawn out before your eyes, and your corpse hacked into quarters. Your head found a new home along London Bridge, and the rest of your bloody mess was dispatched to the entrances of London, where it would join the other executed riffraff as a way of reminding everyone to behave while in town picking up souvenir T-shirts.

I almost forgot: you were castrated, too. Oddly, Braveheart overlooks this.

* The guillotine was reserved for aristocrats; commoners had to make do with hanging. Either way, executions were big business, both for the pickpockets who roamed the Killin' Day crowds and the guys doing the executing. Which just goes to show how much of a deterrent hanging was against pickpocketing. Along with their regular pay, hangmen were entitled to the clothing and nooses of those they executed, and they made a considerable secondary killing selling the clothes and rope cut by the inch.

The fun continued until 1833, when a killjoy Frenchman named Alexis DeTocqueville published De la Democratie en Amerique (or Americans Are Idiots), which chronicles the American idea of using prisons to reform criminals instead of just executing the whole lot and being done with it. Within a year, everyone on the continent started thinking about prisons, the Spanish Inquisition ended, and everyone on the continent started hating the French even more.

Scott Buckner is one of the Beachwood's resident TV watchers.


Posted on January 12, 2007

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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