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Mind the Bollocks 

In Hollywood studios and London restaurants, balls are bigger than ever

Thursday, Jul 10 2003
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Of late, bollocks have been big on TV. So have balls. “You’ve got to have a giant pair of bollocks to succeed in this profession,” growled fearsome head chef Gordon Ramsey on a recent episode of BBC America’s Faking It (Sunday, 8 p.m.). And on Project Greenlight (HBO, Sunday, 10:30 p.m.), in which three movie rookies win $1 million to make their first feature, creepy Miramax honcho Chris Moore was astounded by the cojones of fledgling director Efram Potelle, who had the nerve to ask the studio to provide him with a new car. “I can’t believe this guy’s asking me this question right now,” said the outraged Moore. “I mean, the balls of it!”

Most of the time, however, the trouble with Potelle and his co-director Kyle Rankin is a lack of balls. Ditto for Erica Beeney, who wrote The Battle of Shaker Heights, the script Potelle and Rankin are set to direct. In the opening episode of this year’s series, we watched as actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, together with Moore and a couple of movie execs, decided on the winners of their $1 million competition. There were two categories: best script and best director. But rather than go straight to the envelope, we got to see the finalists in both competitions make their pitches. The screenwriters discussed their screenplays, and the directors talked about how they would direct them.

The setting was Park City, Utah, in the midst of winter and the Sundance Film Festival. The meetings were held in a swanky ski lodge. All of the filmmakers were novices, and making them pitch was the judges’ way to size up not only their talent but their nerve. Almost everyone was interesting, which on a reality show is unusual to say the least. One felt bad for the losers, the ones who almost made it and had to go home with nothing. But that was the first episode. By the end of the second episode, you realized it was the winners who were unlucky. I know you’re not supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this one should have been examined by a team of oral surgeons.

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You thought hazing was a problem in the military? Try Hollywood. Now back in L.A. to prepare their film, the victors’ weaknesses are picked apart with sadistic relish by Moore and his lieutenant Jeff Balis. (Can that name be a coincidence?) Potelle and Rankin have gone from being heroes to zeroes in a matter of days, and they know it. They sit tongue-tied through the casting, production and script meetings they’re supposed to dominate. When they interview an actress for a possible role, they can’t think of any questions and just stare at her as if they’ve never actually seen a working actress before. In the meantime, the writer, who was the greatest thing since Virginia Woolf back in Utah, is now informed that parts of her script read like a Lifetime movie of the week. There’s no denying it: Moore and Balis are clearly disappointed in their prizewinners. What they never ask themselves is: If they’re so lousy, why did we pick them? Sure, we’ve got balls, but maybe we lack, er, insight? Not to mention other human traits such as compassion, generosity, humility, etc.

Perhaps it was an honest mistake. More likely, though, it’s all part of a diabolical master plan for making compelling television. And compared to most of the junk on the networks, Project Greenlight is brilliant. But, so far anyway, it’s also very, very cruel. Most reality-show contestants are so narcissistic it’s hard to care about them no matter what humiliations are heaped on their heads. But Potelle, Rankin and Beeney are just movie-mad people who’ve worked really hard to get to where they are. And now, as Moore puts it, they’ve been handed “the opportunity to fuck up the rest of their lives, or make the rest of their lives.”

In other words, are they winners or losers? Do they have the balls or not? Will they choke on match point or serve an ace?

 

Faking It, an excellent BBC import (there’s an American version too, on TLC), is also about making the grade. The premise is that each week a new contestant will be given a month (and a lot of expert help) to switch professions and then convince a panel of experts that he’s the real deal. But it isn’t always a question of moving up in the world. In one episode, an upper-class Oxford student tried to pass himself off as a street-wise bouncer; in another, a ballet dancer had a go at professional wrestling. The best episode so far, though, was definitely about moving up in the world, and it was a beauty. In it, Ed Devlin, “a happy-go-lucky fast-food vendor from Newcastle,” was given a month to turn himself into a convincing simulacrum of a head chef from a first-class restaurant. Almost all the episodes on Faking It are good, but this one was genuinely illuminating and moving.

We first see Ed — scruffy, unshaven, wearing a baseball cap — shoveling burgers and fries onto paper plates from a roadside van. But then his life changes. He’s sent down to London to stay with David Laris, a chef at “one of London’s trendiest restaurants,” as the show’s narrator helpfully informs us. Ed’s first task is to cook Laris and his wife dinner. He’s given all the ingredients — a beautiful fish, vegetables, and all the kitchen implements he could ask for. There’s only one problem: He can’t cook. (He can only flip burgers and make beans on toast.) Laris takes one bite of the hideously charred fish and absurdly overdone vegetables (Ed boiled them for an hour) and politely suggests they go for takeout Chinese.

With a lot of hard work, Ed does eventually learn something about preparing and cooking food. He also learns how to make a few dishes good enough to fool the judges. (Duck with cranberry sauce is his specialty.) But his biggest problem is that he can’t bring himself to boss other people around — which, as a head chef, he absolutely must do in order to run a kitchen. So, like every contestant on Faking It, he’s sent off to see an acting coach who teaches him that the fastest way to become the person you want to be is to act as if you already are that person.

But even with the coach’s help, Ed still has trouble being authoritative. Giving orders is anathema to him. And he can’t get used to being surrounded by sleek, successful professionals. From his slacker perspective, they’re like a different species. But in the end, just when you think he’s hopeless, he flips a switch in his head, starts barking out orders, and leads his team of cooks to victory in a cooking competition against three other teams led by real head chefs. It’s an amazing moment. Ed has been transformed. It seems he does have a giant pair of bollocks, after all. And I doubt he’s still selling burgers.

 

More Brit TV is on the way with MI-5, which debuts July 22 at 10 p.m. on A&E, and should not be missed. Starring Matthew Macfadyen as Tom Quinn, a broodingly handsome super-spy for Britain’s secret service, this is a show that combines an Alias-like love of gadgetry with taut storytelling and a reasonably convincing degree of verisimilitude, though I’m sure it’s miles away from how spies actually live, work and behave.

No matter. This is a sophisticated, well-written show that moves at a clip and gets you involved in the characters. The politics, it’s true, are of the self-congratulatory, aren’t-we-nice-’n’-liberal kind seen on everything from 24 to Law & Order: SVU, but hell, by this point that’s just part of the television landscape. And the amazing thing is how lively, even healthy in spots, the landscape’s looking. Who says there’s nothing good on TV during the summer?

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