Television programmes nowadays often involve attention-starved emotional cripples being trained by sadists in thinly disguised "Clown Colleges", or, if you will, "Goon Schools". E4 has finally made this fact explicit with its new reality television programme, Tool Academy.
In Tool Academy, a number of awful human beings believe that they are competing to be Britain's Ultimate Lad, when they have, in fact, been enrolled by their girlfriends into a 'Tool Academy' because of what presenter Rick Edwards describes as "their toolish ways". It's a simple enough premise.
"Twelve unhappy girlfriends. Twelve relationships on the brink of breakdown. And 12 absolute tools," Edwards explains at the outset.
"These men," he stresses. "Are complete tools."
"You are just a tool," he confirms later, as a hapless tool is ejected from the Tool Academy.
Rick Edwards loves saying the word "tool". And, frankly, I love hearing it. It's a wonderful, descriptive word, conjuring up a clear picture of someone who's not horrible enough to be a 'p***k' but isn't lovable enough to be a 'goon'. It's also a medical term. Well, I presume it is, because one of the main players in the Tool Academy (apart from Rick Edwards, who is himself a recovering tool) is television psychiatrist Sandra Scott, so toolishness must be a treatable medical condition which is regularly discussed in The Lancet. Furthermore, Scott is not just any psychiatrist; she's the 'resident psychiatrist'. This means, I presume, that the Tool Academy is a real institution that has been grafting away in hard-working obscurity on the nation's tools prior to E4 ever making this eye-opening documentary.
A few things become clear as the programme progresses. Firstly, Tool Academy does what it says on the tin: these men are indeed (and again I quote) "chronic tools". For the first half of the show they booze and shout and leer at women and 'large it' under the illusion that they are competing in Britain's Ultimate Lad ("This is the happiest day of my life," one of them says toolishly, after having his photograph taken with some glamour models). However, the producers have nobler motives than pure voyeurism. They subscribe to Lenin's notion of the perfectibility of mankind and plan to raise these men out of their subjugation, to lift the human spirit, to, in short, "turn those tools into men".
So after a fake modelling competition, in which the tools parade semi-naked down a runway, the girlfriends emerge, the truth is revealed and comprehension slowly spreads across the toolish faces. Not all of the tools are happy. One tool starts wrecking the gaff. "I look like a f***ing dick!" he screams accurately. "It's all gone chicken oriental!" says a less intelligent tool gleefully. "I oiled myself up for nothing," says a deeper tool sadly (I wish I were making this up).
The tools and their girlfriends are then forced to don school blazers and attend group therapy sessions, where it quickly becomes clear that the girlfriends themselves are 'She-tools'. While some have genuine concerns about their boyfriends' behaviour (one chap can't get through the day without 15 joints), others are homophobic bullies ("He's a big gayboy," complains one girl of her boyfriend's sensitive nature) and creepy enablers (on seeing her boyfriend smash a door in anger, one girl says "It was a bit of a relief. I was like 'aw, he still cares'").
Sadly, the girls' own toolishness is deemed outside the remit of the programme. This is a shame, given the high quality of treatment being doled out by Sandra Scott. She prescribes 'romantic dates' for all of the couples, and then judges the tools' commitment based on their conversations ("If she said right now she wanted me to lick her ass, I would," said one tool of his girlfriend, although all she really wants him to do is a bit of washing-up). Some tools do not make the grade. One chap ("I'm half man, half amazing," he told us earlier in the show) is considered to be too self-obsessed for continued treatment at the Tool Academy. Another is ousted because he loves playing football more than a woman he's dated for four months who's enrolled him in a humiliating Tool Academy.
By the end, 10 tools remain, and at a touching awards ceremony they are given special Tool Academy 'commitment badges'.
"You've passed the commitment course," says resident psychiatrist Sandra Scott, as she passes a commitment badge to a tool who, a few days earlier, was caught on camera groping a stranger in a pub toilet. "Wear your badge with pride," she adds, and I get a flash from the future:
"What's that badge on your shoulder, granddad?" says a young boy.
"Why that's a badge from my days in the Tool Academy, son," says an elderly tool, wiping a tear from his eye. "The happiest days of my life."
After the bloody shooting spree that ended last season's Grey's Anatomy, you might expect the attractive doctors of Seattle Grace hospital to now be disfigured, traumatised and no fun. This is not the case. These television doctors might bear both emotional and (well-hidden) physical scars in the aftermath of that rather bar-raising season finale, but they're still hunks and hunkettes on a cathartic journey. Thus they still see horrendous medical complaints as metaphors for their own problems (in this episode a man with a freakish deformity reminds them that we are all, in a way, freaks) and can channel these insights into thematically linked plotlines which culminate in fortune-cookie wisdom recited over a cathartic musical montage ("We are all, in a way, freaks,"... or something to that effect, mused narrating physician Meredith).
Raw doesn't lean so heavily on the viewer's buttons. Its backdrop isn't a death-filled hospital but a customer-filled restaurant, and when its characters are wrist deep in gooey guts, they're the guts of a soon-to-be-cooked fish and not, as is regularly the case in Grey's Anatomy, a fellow cast member. So it's the start of a new series over at Raw and all the characters are attracted to colleagues and friends they shouldn't be attracted to. I can't judge it on workplace verisimilitude (I work at home by myself with a cat, where this level of sexually-charged drama would be a cause for concern), but the characters are well developed (particularly Charlene McKenna's wayward Jojo and Damon Gameau's gruff chef Geoff) and the dialogue zips along nicely.
The Biggest Loser is the latest in a line of programmes purporting to be about self-development but which really began when a television consultant circled the words "FAT PEOPLE CRYING" on a whiteboard. That's the core of the genre. The finer points aren't that important, but in this instance, emotionally vulnerable overweight people compete to lose the most weight in the shortest period of time, while lithe body fascists judge them, and the audience at home get to feel better about their own lives. The Biggest Loser is presented by Davina McCall, who the programme makers found outside the Big Brother house holding a sign saying: "Will shepherd the vulnerable for $$$." Big Brother, readers may recall, was the original Tool Academy.
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