Ugly Americans


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.

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.

Each episode of Worlds Apart follows a similar structure of dislocation, homesickness, adaptation, and finally the obligatory and inevitable truisms about how much everyone’s learned from the experience. Looking to avoid trouble, the show skips past awkward political conversations, preferring to concentrate on making emotional connections. Although it’s not the most raucous reality show around, it does offer a slightly deeper model of American tourism than the usual round-the-world-in-10-days Let’s Go version (or the Wildboyz-style invasion, for that matter). As Floyd Rappy says, “I don’t want to package [my experience], I just want it to keep on informing my life.”

To amp up Election Day anxiety, the Sundance Channel has put together “A Night at the Races,” a marathon of election-related documentaries that will be broadcast on November 4 and again throughout the month. Richard Ray Perez and Joan Sekler’s dry but meticulous film Unprecedented returns us to the chadlands—the mass voter fraud otherwise known as the 2000 presidential election—while R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor’s sharp documentary, A Perfect Candidate, takes us further back in time to Oliver North’s 1994 campaign for the U.S. Senate.

The quirkiest film in the series, Our Times by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (Under the Skin of the City), documents the 2001 presidential elections in Iran. Inspired by her teenage daughter’s involvement in the campaign to reelect reformist president Mohammed Khatami, Bani-Etemad captures the surge of youthful political ebullience in her country. But then she goes deeper, focusing her lens on one of the 48 women who quietly declared themselves presidential candidates: Arezoo, a luminous, articulate single mother who works two jobs and lives on the brink of homelessness. Our Times delicately captures the disconnect between Iran’s growing sense of political freedom and Arezoo’s persistent struggle to survive.