Judge Chris Claro has known schnooks, schlemiels, and shmendriks. Now he completes the set.
Our review of The Joe Schmo Show: The Complete First Season, published August 4th, 2004, is also available.
The Schmo must go on.
Is it the fakest reality show ever? Or does its fakery make the reality really, really real?
In the episode titled "The Pony Remark," Kramer told Seinfeld, in patented Kramerian style, "levels, Jerry, levels." Though Kramer was describing his idea to purge his furniture and build a series of shelves in his house, he might as well have been talking about Joe Schmo and its imaginatively titled sequel, Joe Schmo 2.
The levels of the initial Schmo comprised a delicate Napoleon in which a regular guy who thought he was a contestant on a reality show was actually a stooge, "competing" against actors playing the parts of the other participants. Throughout the faux game, the actors and the crew had to maintain the ruse to keep the schmo in the dark and prevent the whole conceit from imploding. In Joe Schmo 2, the conceit is the same, but the stakes are higher, as a female mark is added to compete on the show-within-the-show, Last Chance for Love.
Facts of the Case
The nine episodes that comprise the season of Joe Schmo 2 impose a weird sense of vertigo on viewers, forcing them to balance between real and "real." With peeks inside production meetings—complete with actors discussing the motivation and behavior of their stereotypical reality show characters—alternating with what appear to be straight versions of such reality show tropes as elimination ceremonies and direct-to-camera confession segments, Joe Schmo 2 is a tricky blend of parody, behind-the-curtain machinations, and competition. With so many conventions to navigate, it's not surprising that the series is only moderately successful.
As any fan of SCTV or Christopher Guest can attest, parody is as delicate as a soufflé, and just as challenging to create: go too broad with your mockery of the conventions you're sending up and you might as well be Harvey Korman shticking it up with Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show. Play it too subtle, as Guest did with the songs written for A Mighty Wind, and you're paying tribute to the form, not poking fun at it.
In the case of Joe Schmo 2, the issue is that the parody components—ribald, suggestive, and some quite funny—get consumed by the bigger issue of whether or not the two contestants will catch on to the show's big con. If the form starts to overshadow the content, with questions of the competition overwhelming the comedy woven through it, the entire production becomes muddled and uncertain. A classic example of this is Norman Lear's old-school late-night soap parody, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, in which the subversive comedy on which the series was predicated ended up as an also-ran to the serialized elements of the show.
Conceptually, Joe Schmo 2 is brilliant. The eleven actors, cast as such reality show staples as "the weeper," "the hottie," "the playah," and "the gotta-be-gay guy," are uniformly excellent; in maintaining their personae throughout their interaction with marks Tim and Ingrid, and dropping it when talking about their characters in the confessional segments, they give viewers a crash course in improvised comedy acting and the thought process behind it.
Among the actors, Ralph Garman deserves special mention. As Derek Newcastle, "the pompous host," Garman, looking like a less-unkempt Will Ferrell, keeps the schmo rolling with droll readings of such hokey host-speak as "Tonight, one of you will be thrown from love's luxury limo and into rejection's beat-up hoopdy." With his frosted hair and sonorous intonation, he doubles the entendre of everything from the schmo's pearl necklace ceremony to the male vs. female sack and box competition.
One of the subtle ironies of Joe Schmo 2 is that, though contestants Tim and Ingrid aren't professional performers, they are participants in a reality show and, as such, are as aware as any of the actors of what's expected of them performance-wise. It's not giving too much away to say that it's this level of self-awareness that throws the production into a tailspin halfway through the series and makes Joe Schmo 2 better than it has a right to be.
From a technical standpoint, Mill Creek's presentation of Joe Schmo 2 is the polar opposite of the show itself, lacking any sense of invention or cleverness. Video and audio are unsurprisingly standard, the disc contains no scene selection option, and there are a mere three chapter stops for every 42-minute episode. In addition to those haphazard quirks, the packaging stands out as extra chintzy: the set's two discs are housed in paper envelopes stuck inside the plastic case.
Though I wouldn't have expected a raft of extras for a short-lived basic cable show, I was sad to see there was no commentary track from the show's creators. For a show with as many layers as Joe Schmo 2 boasts, it would have been interesting to hear the writers and producers discuss the challenges they faced in creating the show.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
True invention is hard to find on television, and within the subset of "reality," it's damn near nonexistent. The genre that relies on humiliation, backstabbing, gross behavior, and vulgar characterizations of "real" people—whether they're housewives, fashion designers, or unbridled procreators—is ripe for a shot of self-awareness, creativity, and invention. Even though Joe Schmo 2 can't quite keep all its plates spinning, the cast and crew deserve props for attempting to twist the conventions of a cheesy genre into a clever Moebius strip of reality/comedy.
For fans of improv comedy and inventive parody Joe Schmo 2 is a real treat. It's no laugh riot but it is a quick, clever, well-executed send-up of reality TV.
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Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
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