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Head Games 

From Oblivious to Sex and the City

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
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Oblivious, “the game show you don‘t even know you’re on,” as it bills itself, is a sneakily funny look at middle-class American life, where what counts as general knowledge is being able to put a name to a supermodel‘s face and identifying the Stephen King movie in which “a car came to life” as Christine. Debuting Monday, August 12, on TNN and hosted by Regan Burns, a goofy Everyman with a talent for disguise, the show is an enjoyable tour through some of the laid-back-to-the-point-of-coma precincts of L.A. In one scene he’s pretending to be a minimum-wage clerk at the checkout counter of a dismal supermarket; in the next he‘s a loudmouthed Hollywood agent who doesn’t know whether there was a sequel to Men in Black.

A typical scene works like this: A young couple walk into a restaurant, sit down at a table on the sun-dappled patio, and Burns is the waiter -- an extremely incompetent waiter. The couple are amiable, casual, loose. If Burns were dressed as Rasputin on rollerblades, they wouldn‘t blink an eye. “I’m gonna get crazy today,” the man (“G-Money,” he calls himself) announces, looking at the menu -- and orders a raspberry iced tea to prove it. In the meantime, Burns starts describing the specials. “Our soup du jour today . . .,” he begins, and then stops in midsentence. “What does ‘soup du jour’ mean again?” he asks, as if it‘s just slipped his mind. The covert quiz show has begun.

G-Money is entirely unperturbed by the fact that a waiter talking about the “soup du jour” doesn’t know what the phrase means. After all, he doesn‘t know what it means either. “Some kind of meat soup?” he suggests, and strikes out. Had he gotten the answer right, he would have won $20. But unbeknownst to him, there are still four questions to go, with another $80 still up for grabs. Surrounded by hidden cameras, he and his girlfriend are going to leave the restaurant a lot better off than when they entered it. Provided they don’t object to being secretly filmed and recorded, that is.

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Even if “soup du jour” doesn‘t mean meat soup, animal flesh is what G-Money is after. Burns suggests the chicken fajitas, and then asks how “fajitas” is spelled. “F-Heaters” says G-Money, a mite sarcastically, perhaps wondering what’s with all the questions. His girlfriend is more helpful, and spells out the word -- ding! $20! From this point forward, things get weird. Playing the role of idiotic waiter to perfection, Burns trips over a chair leg, sends his tray flying, and then appears to have a nervous breakdown while clearing up the mess and firing more questions at the bemused couple. “Who wrote ‘What a Girl Wants’?” “Is Fidel Castro an American citizen?” he practically screams at them.

What‘s funny about the show is the way the “marks” -- as they’re known in the trade -- react to Burns‘ behavior. (G-Money ends up giving him a hug to calm him down, at which point Burns points to the camera and tells him he’s just been filmed for TV.) Those who do “well” are often persuaded to continue the process by taking over from Burns. Thus G-Money also becomes a dopey waiter who keeps asking the customers questions. (Each time they get one right, he wins $100.) In some ways, the amateurs are even funnier than the pro.

Not surprisingly, Oblivious doesn‘t venture into too many upscale joints. Not only would the rich be unimpressed by the $20 reward for each correct answer, they’d also have a lot less time for questions like “Do they put lettuce in a Big Mac?” No, this is a comedy about the lower end of America‘s middle class, a stratum where people who work in bookstores have never heard of Charles Dickens and the only thing that’s expected of its members is that they don‘t smoke indoors. It’s the strange, zombified realm of moronic service-sector jobs that Burns mines for his comedy, and he does it brilliantly. On the evidence of this show, we‘re a sweet, good-natured, nonjudgmental, humorous people -- and asleep on our feet.

After a long, arduous and entirely intuitive survey, I have concluded that the sex life of the average American citizen consists largely of watching other people have sex on TV. That’s true of the male segment of the population, anyway. Women, who are less enthralled with pornography, seem more tempted by their cell phones. Cell phones, not men, are what they touch, caress, cradle and obsess over for hours on end. When they‘re not actually speaking into them, they gaze at them lovingly as if they were little electronic bambini. They may be waiting for a guy to call, but it’s the phone that gets all the affection.

It‘s amazing how much sex there is on TV, particularly after 11 o’clock at night if you have cable. Then Howard Stern comes on with his two half-hour shows of getting women to strip and confess to lesbian encounters. Real Sex (“Take three!”) slips onto the airwaves with its bright-eyed investigations of erotic poetry parties, stripper conventions, sex toys and the sinister pleasures of latex, while The Best Sex Ever explores fantasies of the friendly window-cleaner variety. On Taxicab Confessions, exhibitionists climb into the back of a cab and obligingly spill their sexual histories while going down on each other. And let‘s not forget the soft-porn flicks shown in endless rotation, in which iron-chested men hump steely-breasted women deep into the small hours while taking the occasional time-out to negotiate a threadbare plot. If you have satellite, you can even dial up the more hardcore stuff, which has all the charm of an instructional video on plumbing.

And then there’s Sex and the City, a television show awash in the approval of enlightened middle-class opinion. It‘s the respectable face of contemporary sex-obsession. “That fucking Richard,” Samantha said in this season’s opening episode. “He left another ‘I’m sorry‘ message on my machine. Like all the ’I‘m sorries’ in the world are going to make up for the fact that I caught him eating another woman‘s pussies.” Yes. Samantha didn’t say “pussy,” she said “pussies,” a verbal misstep neither Kim Cattrall, the actress playing her, nor anyone else on the show appeared to notice. I don‘t know what that proves, but either Samantha’s boyfriend is eating cats or she‘s deranged. But there did seem something slightly deranged, or at least ratings-desperate, about the way in which three of the four principals on the show found a reason to display their breasts as if they were trying out for a more decorous, middle-aged version of Girls Gone Wild.

Of course, with advancing age, terrorism and a crashing economy, the girls may be feeling a bit desperate. But then, who isn’t? Given the level of sex-saturation in the media, the amount left over for “real” life often feels insultingly small. In Milan Kundera‘s novel Identity, the head of an ad agency advises his colleagues that they must be careful to use erotic imagery in a way that doesn’t intensify the public‘s frustration. “Only a very small minority really enjoys sex,” he says. “All the polls say the opposite!” a woman objects. “Of course they do,” he replies smoothly:

“If someone interrogates you, my dear lady, on your sex life, are you going to tell the truth? Even if the person doesn’t know your name, even if he‘s asking his questions over the phone and doesn’t see you, you‘re going to lie: ’Do you like to fuck?‘ ’And how!‘ ’How often?‘ ’Six times a day!‘ ’Do you like dirty sex?‘ ’Crazy about it!‘ But all that is hogwash. When it comes to commerce, the erotic is a touchy issue, because while everyone may covet the erotic life everyone also hates it, as the source of their troubles, their frustrations, their yearnings, their complexes, their sufferings.”

That last sentence goes a long way toward conveying the hold Sex and the City has on its audience, which appears to be considerable, at least as far as women are concerned. The men’s version, also on HBO, The Mind of the Married Man, has been a flop, but I think that has a lot to do with its title, which sounds like something being carved up in a laboratory. Imagine if Sex and the City was called The Mind of the Unmarried Woman. I think it would take a bit of the glamour out of it, don‘t you?

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