It's easy to scoff at the vast array of TV shows that air on the specialty and digital channels, and I know some of you like to scoff. There are so many cooking shows, home-decorating shows and shows that document hobbies and obsessions. It's a bewildering bevy of material. Who could possibly be interested in things so obscure?
But while you snigger, be aware that there's an audience for everything. While I was away in Ireland last week, a woman told me that she's devoted to a BBC series called What Not to Wear. No sooner am I back than a tape of the show arrives from BBC Canada, which tells me it will air here in November. The other day in a Toronto bar, I overheard four women discussing what they watch on TV. Three were avid fans of Loving Spoonfuls, a cute and wacky cooking show on the W channel. They tried to persuade the fourth that she just had to see this guy David Gale, the host.
This weekend there are three marvelously revealing programs that are generally about obsessions and the seedy corners of life. Each is as good as any fictional TV drama. Punch Like a Girl (tonight, Life, 10:30 p.m.) is one of those small-scale reality-TV shows you might dismiss, but it's worth your time. It's about female boxers in Toronto. Mostly, it consists of footage of women hitting each other in a gym. But it's also got the inevitable stories of triumph over adversity.
Tonight's episode features Rosie, a young woman from Jamaica who is here on a visitor visa but hopes to extend her stay because the immigration rules allow gifted amateur athletes to remain here. She needs to keep winning in the boxing ring. There is also Kirsten, a junior lawyer at a Bay Street firm who says that when she's old, she doesn't want to only remember some deal she made -- she wants to win a real fight.
In the centre of it all is Savoy, a veteran who returns to the ring after spending her time training other women. She inevitably uses the word "empowerment" when she talks about those she instructs, but she also knows that boxing is all about sheer, primal aggression. "I have a hard time hitting another female that hard," she says, "but I can knock somebody's block off."
Watching the end of Savoy's fight against a fast young boxer named Hail Mary Barret is excruciating drama.
Female Fantasies (Saturday, Life, 10 p.m.) features a documentary called Strip Notes. It's an extraordinarily creepy program. At first I suspected that it was being presented with a very dubious overlay of earnestness. But it's actually an acrid account of life in the two seediest businesses in Hollywood -- acting and stripping. It's even directed by a Hollywood star, Daryl Hannah.
Here's the deal -- Hannah was researching a role in a movie ( Dancing at the Blue Iguana)as a stripper, so she spent several months hanging around a strip joint in Los Angeles. The director of Blue Iguana required her to create her character and dialogue based on what she had seen in the real world. The camera follows her around but mostly stays in the dressing room where the real strippers prepare for work.
Sometimes we hear a dead-serious Hannah talk about her research method and occasionally we see her rehearse for the movie.
However, the most compelling character to emerge is Gino, the unspeakable strip-joint manager whose treatment of the women is appalling. A monster of manipulation, he constantly threatens to fire women and sometimes requires them to watch hours of cheap horror films in which he starred. He plies them with liquor when they're nervous or upset. He also shows off pictures of himself with mob figures.
The camera catches all kinds of creepy ironies. There's the attendant in the ladies washroom at the strip club who spends all her time reading romance novels. She relies on tips from the strippers to make money and the single dollar bills pile up on a saucer. In turn, the strippers make the money they give the attendant (the same dollar bills) by taking off their clothes for leering men. There is no need for a narrator to tell us about the huge distance between romance novels and what these women -- the strippers and washroom attendant -- experience daily.
The film's real point is the difference between the authentic, despairing world of the strippers and the fiction being created by Hollywood. Although the director, Michael Radford, asked for a movie rooted in reality, the rehearsal scenes we witness only underline the reliance on familiar clichés about strippers. Dancing at the Blue Iguana has been little seen, and I haven't seen it, but I suspect that Strip Notes (which has been shown at a few film festivals and on Britain's Channel 4) is by far the better drama. Nothing in fiction can match the heart-scalding scene of a young woman at the strip joint, in tears because she hasn't made enough money. Another dancer tells her, "It's just a titty bar. Have a drink. Smoke something, have fun." Go Tigers! (Sunday, Newsworld, 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye) is another documentary about obsession that often takes us into the gym and the dressing room. It's about the town of Massillon, Ohio, and its long fixation on the local high-school football team, the Tigers.
Massillon is a steel town of 33,000 people. Supporting the Tigers is the town's religion. Everything in the town is anchored in the experience of the 10-week football season.
What we see here is neither a celebration of Massillon nor a condemnation of it. It's a classic American narrative of triumph following failure -- we meet the town and its team just when a new season starts and following a rare losing season. The recent past must be erased and the town demands a return to the glory days. The film begins with a clip from a 1951 newsreel that glorifies Massillon as a "Touchdown Town," a place where high-school football is "a cult, a religion, a civic enterprise that knows no season." Go Tigers! is about keeping the world as it was in 1951.
Filmmaker Kenneth Carslen, who is from Massillon, asks the audience just to look at this town and its team. He asks us to watch the wide-eyed optimism of the players and then their postgame beer-drinking binges that end in vomiting. It's an astute, sighing portrait of America itself and reveals more than most of the TV dramas and comedies airing this weekend.