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TV REVIEW: Bonzai (Fox)

Turning Japanese

by Stephen Kelly

"Chairman" Takeshi Kaga is the host of the Food Network's Iron Chef. Stern, wise, and passionate, Kaga oversees TV's greatest cook-off and is fond of wearing flamboyant, heavily sequined outfits that would make Liberace proud. But don't let the outrageous threads fool you. He may be eccentric, but he's a no-nonsense guy, hosting the show with an arrogance that seems appropriate for someone called the Iron Chef. He's neither warm nor fuzzy, and we don't know whether to like him or fear him.
Notably, Kaga and his Iron Chef colleagues provide some of the few Asian faces offered by U.S. TV, network or otherwise. But wait until Americans gets a load of Mr. Banzai, the bizarre host of Banzai. This truly stupid, yet strangely amusing summer series lands in the middle of Fox's Sunday night lineup with all the sensitivity of a kick to the groin.

Eyes bugging out of his bald head, mouth twisted in a constant grimace, he almost dares you to look at him. Shrill and intimidating, he's like the Iron Chef on angel dust, making Chairman Kaga look like, well, Liberace. There is absolutely nothing likeable or appealing about Mr. Banzai. In fact, his behavior borders on psychotic. But he is the perfect face for a show that redefines TV's idea of tastelessness and has already drawn the ire of Asian American groups offended by its outrageous portrayal of Asians.

A U.S. import of a cult British parody of Japanese game shows, Banzai urges viewers to wager, at various times during each episode, on the outcome of vulgar skits and contests. For instance, viewers might bet on the Interesting Penalty Shoot Out Conundrum, where a one-legged soccer player must score goals against a one-armed goalie, or The Shuffle of the Sinful Ladies, where one of three geisha girls is wearing red underwear (this contest comes complete with crotch shots). Through it all, Mr. Banzai repeatedly pops up on screen, set against a garish background, screeching at us to "PLACE BETS NOW!" as CNN-type tickers direct viewers to the show's website or a phone number where bets can be placed.

This is — so far, anyway — as ridiculous as network television gets. And those of higher sensibilities may be advised to look elsewhere for their evening's entertainment. But viewers willing to check their brains at the door will find that Banzai has an unpredictable and cheeky irreverence reminiscent of The Gong Show. It's like a car wreck: you are horrified but you can't look away.

You also can't help laughing, particularly at the recurring characters who harass celebrities. Mr. Shake Hand Man is an amiable Japanese man who poses as a reporter at certain events. He grabs a celebrity's hand and continues to pump away as he asks a series of "innocuous" questions. How many seconds will it take Kelsey Grammer to break free of Mr. Shake Hand Man's grip? Place bets now!

Perhaps most bizarre is Lady One Question, who approaches celebrities, asks one question and then holds the microphone in front of their faces, leaving it there long after the celeb offers up his stock answer. In the show's debut, Simon Cowell pontificates on the differences between American Idol and Britain's Pop Idol before running out of steam. It's a hoot watching Cowell completely wither under Lady One Question's steely gaze as viewers bet on how long it will take him to just walk away. (If you said 77 seconds, you win).

Banzai is aimed squarely at the semi-literate, short-attention-spanned young male demographic that made Jackass and Punk'ed hits for MTV. And like both those shows, Banzai has no interest in being politically correct or sensitive to any group or culture. (A contest where a chicken named Larry is attached to bundles of balloons in order to be set afloat won't win the show many friends with animal rights factions.)

Those outraged at the show's blatant stereotypes of Asians may have a point, as Banzai's characters mangle the English language at every opportunity while striking karate poses and contorting their faces. Typical of this depiction is Mr. Banzai's greasy-haired co-host, Cheeky Chappy, who wears thick glasses and mismatched clothes, and does little more than giggle and look confused.

"It's just all the backward images of Asian-American people," says Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, a watchdog group that monitors the portrayal of Asians in media. "This is like an Asian minstrel show." The group, which recently convinced the Fox Movie Channel not to show a retrospective of Charlie Chan films, has asked Fox to remove Banzai from their lineup. In defense, Fox spokesman Scott Grogin told Reuters, "It's a satire, a parody of Japanese game shows. It's very tongue-in-cheek and should not be viewed as anything but. "He added that the network is considering running a disclaimer before the show, but has no intention of dropping Banzai.

If Banzai is supposed to be a spoof, it would help if viewers could recognize it as such. Unfortunately, there are few instructive comparisons available: other than Iron Chef, the U.S. TV-scape is pitifully bereft of Asian images. It's no wonder that people like Aoki are up in arms at Banzai's shoddy portrayals of the Japanese and their customs. Even if Banzai is plainly theater of the absurd, it comes dangerously close to masking racism under the guise of stupidity. Just because something is idiotic, doesn't make it any less offensive.

Still, there's nothing like a controversy to boost a show's ratings potential and a good, old-fashioned protest may be just what the show's producers wanted. Railing against a show as inane as Banzai seems a noble, but perhaps misplaced effort. In a summer dominated by one formulaic reality show after another, Banzai is an entertaining breath of fresh air simply because it dares to be so audacious.

Of course, to use the word "entertaining" to describe something so dim-witted as Banzai is more an indictment of the current state of network television than a praise of this show's dubious merits. But Banzai packs more laughs in a half-hour than most shows deliver in an entire season. And if the whole thing seems almost surreal, well, it's designed to seem that way. (Judging by the 3,315 e-mails posted on the show's website during the 13 July debut, a lot of people are not only watching, but also playing along.)

Wedged in a cushy time spot between The Simpsons and Malcolm In the Middle, Banzai stands a better than average chance of survival. Here's hoping that future episodes emphasize the preposterous fun of its contests rather than its questionable portrayals of the Japanese.

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