4 June 2006 | liquidcelluloid-1
Kutcher has put together a "Candid Camera" for a new star-worshiping generation, but the free-standing improv bits are funnier than the pranks
Network: MTV; Genre: Reality, Comedy; Content Rating: TV-14 (for language); Available on Uncensored DVD and MTV2; Perspective: Classic (star range: 1 - 5);
Seasons Reviewed: 2+ seasons
Ashton Kutcher has parlayed his looks, teenage girl appeal and "That 70s Show" capital into his own MTV series. Given the opportunity, what he put together is a "Candid Camera" for a new, star worshiping generation. This is "Punk'd" and it has become not just an amusing practical joke show, but part of our language and popular culture.
I never got the appeal of Alan Funt's "Candid Camera" and the idea of watching everyday people get upset and angry over contrived situations, but not really doing anything funny or scandalous.. The "Punk'd" twist gives the jokes a purpose. Kutcher appears in rapidly cut black-and-white introductory monologues and conveys himself as nothing more than a good old farm boy screaming at us about how things are "where he comes from" as opposed to the pampered celebrity world he is immersed in now in L.A. "Punk'd" gives us the opportunity to see rich and famous Hollywood types get a squirming that they so richly deserve (often involving their cars). Well, some of them, like Fankie Muniz, Shaquille O'Neil, and Kelly Osbourne deserve to get knocked down to size, while others like my poor dears Eliza Dushku and Rachael Lee Cook, do not so much. Mandy Moore on Crib Crasher is a classic, as is an epic bit involving Beyonce Knowles and a Christmas tree.
Some of the pranks can be repetitive and uninspired. When the time comes for Kutcher to drop the hammer and let the victim know they've been punk'd, what you'd think would be the big punchline reaction we're all waiting for, it is over before it began. So really, for me, "Punk'd" works best as an improv comedy with a clueless celebrity caught in the middle of an elaborate free-standing piece of theatrics.
And the more elaborate and nonsensical they are the better. Seth Green being punk'd with a raid on an illegal craps game isn't as funny as the detail that Kutcher's phony FBI agent does a Hollywood barrel roll as he crashes through the window. It isn't that Hilary Duff gets punk'd with a driver's ed lesson from hell that is as funny as the detail that her teacher attacks another driver with a bat and a smoothie. It isn't that Kutcher makes Tommy Lee think he's hit a women, but that he piles it on even higher with a bus of Asian tourists pulling up to watch the spectacle. The show is also available on an unrated (read R-rated) DVD, which may be your only chance to hear Hilary Duff say the F-word, at least for a while.
Kutcher is having an unending blast here. He boasts that he can't be punk'd and that he can punk anybody, but it is never quite clear when the punking begins and ends because often the celebrity will look completely unfazed and occasionally will figure it out, but Kutcher still claims victory. But it is still smarter than you'd expect from MTV. At the end of the 2nd season Kutcher hangs up his hat in another effort to stay one step ahead of the smart-alec celebrities and delivering the ultimate punk - this time on the audience.
The show continues for at least 6 more seasons. As it does "Punk'd" evolves. Kutcher is just too nice a guy and becomes too immersed in the Hollywood crowd himself to keep the show without mercy. Very soon it becomes hip to be punk'd by Kutcher. We see it being treated like a right of passage when Kutcher comes out after the prank and gives the young starlet a big hug to let them know that they have arrived. It becomes a sickening Hollywood love-fest of celebrities "passing the punk" on each other. It also becomes repetitive, there are so many L.A. themed-pranks Kutcher can think of.
Kutcher keeps his cast oscillating so that any celebrity watching won't be able to spot them. All are on the same page, including B.J. Novak and Kaitlin Olsen, and pile on the conversation as serious as it should be. "Punk'd" is a mixed bag of work, splitting down the middle between the dull bits and the truly funny ones. Whether it is still a show for and by Hollywood outsiders is very debatable. But as a reality show, a practical joke show and an MTV show it is better than you'd expect.
* * * / 5