Ugly Americans

Accidental Tourists Stumble Abroad

In this age of American isolationism, wouldn't it be nice to send some of our cultural ambassadors to mix and mingle with the rest of humankind? To broaden our shrinking horizons? So far, our televisual travelers haven't done us too proud. There are the kids from this season's Real World, still brawling and bickering all over Paris, learning no French in their four-month stay. The contestants on The Amazing Race whiz across the globe, searching for clues and trying to outrun fellow Americans; they only bother to talk with the locals when they need directions. And forget about the guests on Temptation Island—those guys are far too busy betraying lovers to notice the scenery, let alone regional politics.

Now we are literally sending our biggest Jackasses out into the world, adding a whole new dimension to the phrase "the ugly American." Pranksters Steve-O and Chris Pontius star in Wildboyz, one of two spin-offs from the shattered Jackass franchise launched on MTV this week. (The other, Bam Margera's solo ruckus-fest, Viva La Bam, fills the time slot just beforehand.) Wildboyz styles itself as a pseudo-wildlife program; an English narrator adds a semi-parodic, educational aura to what is more or less Jackass Goes Global. The basic premise: Beavis and Butt-head kick Jacques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins's asses.

During a visit to South Africa, Steve-O and Pontius engage in "research experiments" that include swimming in shark-infested waters at feeding time, comparing boners with horny baboons, and popping antelope turds in their mouths to see who can spit them farthest. That last game makes Steve-O puke, a Technicolor yawn that the camera lovingly lingers over. The two men constantly surprise themselves with their talent for stupid human tricks: "That was fuckin' scary!" they yell gleefully, scampering into their van after taunting some vicious hyenas with huge hocks of ham. "Oh shit!" they screech as a shark rips into a seal just a few feet away from them. All this excitement does take its toll, though—their throats sound so hoarse I imagine they've already gotten nodules on their vocal cords from endless retakes of screaming reaction shots.

Traveling birdbrains: Wildboyz learn to talk with the animals.
photo: Anna Berry-Jester
Traveling birdbrains: Wildboyz learn to talk with the animals.

Details

Wildboyz
Sundays at 10 p.m. on MTV

Worlds Apart
Mondays at 8 p.m. on National Geographic Channel

A Night at the Races
Tuesday, November 4, at 8 p.m. on Sundance Channel

The Jackass lads were never known for their great sensitivity; in fact, teenage boys all over this land worship them for their insensitivity to great extremes of pain and humiliation. Judging from the one episode I screened, though, the producers of Wildboyz have wisely avoided international incidents by keeping Steve-O and Pontius away from the human population. One exception: They visit a local witch doctor ("native physician," as they quickly correct themselves in mock-p.c. parlance) and procure some tribal equivalent of Viagra. Thankfully, the doc is so out of it that he doesn't seem to notice he's being insulted and patronized.

I keep thinking of Wildboyz as an extreme-sports version of You Shall Know Our Velocity!, Dave Eggers's recent novel about two buddies who, shattered by the death of their best friend, trot around the world trying to jolt themselves out of their slacker anomie. They give away money and play dumbass pranks far too tame for MTV's standards—vaulting from a moving car onto a horse-drawn cart, or sticking an envelope full of money onto a donkey along with the lyrics to '80s metal song "Rock Me Like a Hurricane." In the end, it probably doesn't matter whether Wildboyz is filmed in Pennsylvania or the South Pacific. What these guys seek, like Eggers's characters, is the buzz of reality, something more authentic than the safe, numbing cocoon of American life.

"We're not in Disney World re-enacting something," marvels one of the participants of the National Geographic Channel's new 13-part reality series Worlds Apart. More politically correct than Wildboyz, Worlds Apart resembles those highbrow PBS programs meant to teach us something by sending a family to live in a historically accurate Victorian home, or to play master and servant in an old-style manor house. Each week on Worlds Apart, a different upper-middle-class family goes to live in a third-world village for several weeks, to experience life as the other nine-tenths of the world live it.

The Thurmans of Virginia arrive on a small island off the coast of Papua New Guinea entirely unprepared for their short stay in paradise. Back home Robin is a high-powered businesswoman and Bob a seemingly emasculated modern man (indicated by a scene of wife and two daughters instructing him on what to buy at the drugstore, as if he were a total idiot). But on the island Dad gets to go hunting and adventuring while Mom remains trapped in the hut, where she's expected to help with the cooking. At one point, with a chilling grin that hints at real malevolence, she tells her hubby, "Don't get used to this—it will end soon." Robin thoughtlessly complains about her cooking responsibilities in front of her gracious hostess ("It's not fair that I get to do only one thing!"), even though Robin's stint in the kitchen will last less than three weeks while her hostess will be doing that one thing for the rest of her life.

The Rappys from Katonah, New York, fare slightly better in a small Indian village. Floyd is a graphic designer and artist, Michele a lawyer who does yoga. To get ready for the trip, Michele goes shopping for "spiritual clothes"—i.e., upscale yoga garb—but when she gets there realizes that everything she has bought is baggy, black, and woefully inappropriate. That's not the only sign that the Rappys—like all the families I've seen on the series—are unprepared to rough it. They bring a baby-sitter to help out with their two kids, a precocious creature who seems far more at ease than they are. The clueless Rappys, she grumbles at one point, "are not grasping the struggles that go on here." She's right: The camera catches Michele politely asking for peanut butter and jelly when the neighbors have cooked her family a feast. And the look on her face when her hostess leads her to a bush and says, "This is the bathroom"—well, it's a Kodak moment.

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