Tuesday, June 5, 2007

With Friends like these: Amici, the TV show

With friends like these….

If you turn are watching TV and channel surfing while in Italy, you are bound to at least glimpse a TV show that is broadcast on one of 2 channels 7 days a week. If you have Skye that displays the name, you see the word, ‘Amici’, and know enough Italian to know it means friends, and like me, think oh it’s either the ‘real’ Friends, with dubbing, or the Italian version. Neither interpretation will get you within a mile or kilometer from understanding this Italian phenomena.

In February, I travelled to Rome, and back into time, when I entered the gates of the legendary, Cine Citta. This is the studio where the Italian greats made their films…. Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, like Paramount, Universal, etc, Cine citta seems frozen in time, you are reminded of scenes from The Dolce Vita which were filmed at the same front gates I had entered. Eeery feelings of falling down the rabbit hole and finding myself inside a Fellini film, which became quasi real when I went to the cafeteria with my hosts for a quick bite before the episode of Amici was to start. A woman came up to our table, I thought she worked there serving food or as a busperson. She was 60, 70 or 102…but I’m sure has looked the same for 40 years, and how I would describe her if I had seen her anywhere else in the world, would be, ‘right out of a Fellini movie’. A little bit grotesque, a little bit scary, a little bit threatening, very ordinary….you know….right out of a Fellini movie!! She came to tell us that she was an actress, and we should take her back to Hollywood with us. My friend leaned over to inform me that she in fact had been in every Fellini film, didn’t work in the café, but she was always there, maybe lived somewhere on the lot, or perhaps was not a real human being, but a ghost or an accident of the celluloid that came off the screen, frozen in time, a character that would vanish if stepped outside the confines of the lot.

From ‘gargoyles’ to the ‘gladiators’ as I stepped into the ‘coleseum’ of the Amici set. The audience was already seating in a true amphitheatre as I entered and was bombarded with yelling, stamping of feet, neon lights flashing, loud music, and God knows what else was used to send me into immediate sensory overload. And the experience went downhill from there.

Let me attempt to explain the basics of the show. It’s a little like American Idol, a talent contest among youth with the winner getting a professional contract as the prize.
Auditions are held among thousands (the show is the most highly rated national show, and is in it’s 6th season). 24 finalists are divided into two opposing teams, and come to cine citta to live and attend school. The ‘school’ consists of classes in singing, acting and dancing, for 4-6 hours a day, but they only take classes with and see their own teammates. The only time they see the other team is to compete on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
On these evenings, a woman named, Maria ???, who is the producer and pretty much overall ‘boss’, and apparently one of the most powerful women in Italian television, hosts the show, announcing the different competitions…such as whether it’s dance, song, etc. and which contestant will perform. She does that by turning her back to the audience and looking at a large screen that flashes different possibilities before landing, like a roulette ball on the participant and event. Then the performance is done, and everyone comments: the everyone includes the judges who are apparently experts in each talent and include a middle age, over the top transvestite, drag queen, a over-the-hill professional ballerina, other teachers. The viciousness of the comments of the judges, makes Simon Cowell of American Idol, seem encouraging and protective. The ballerina told to one dancer, a girl that she was teaching 2-4 hours everyday, that not only was she not a good dancer, but ‘don’t feel bad, because not everyone is cut out to dance.’ But the attacks by the judges are not limiteded to the performers, they feel free to cut down each other. The singing teacher accusing the ‘ballerina’ maestra of being jealous and bitter because she was no longer a star, so she was using the show only for self-promotion. This friendly ‘barter’ appetizes the spectators, who cast their agreement or not with boos, stomping, and screaming because the real ‘meal’ comes when the contestants ‘critique’…or castigate, in attempts to annihilate each other. They do this first by showing video that had been shot during the week of the teams talking behind each other’s back, denigrating the other team members. Then they show the person’s reaction to the vicious comments, and ask how he/she feels about that and Maria encourages more attacks and counter-attacks. The nastier it gets, the more revved-up the audience becomes, thus making for ‘great TV’ and of course feeding the most important monster of all, the ratings.
Coming from the world of Big Brother, Fantasy Island, and Fear Factor, who am I to criticize such a successful phenomena? The difference for me was not only the exploitation of youth but rewarding them for excelling at behavior that all cultures find despicable.
In ‘American Idol’, the judges may say cruel things to the contestants, but first of all the judges are not their teachers, and the results show the performers improving under this test, in fact the growth is remarkable, and I think all of us are enobled by seeing a performer blossom before us. However, the competition is to get better yourself, not to have the competitor get worse. I’m sure there is gossip and backstabbing behind the scenes, and obviously not rewarded or instigated to make the show ‘juicier.’
For Amici, what is given the most attention, screen time, applause is not the skill and beauty of the performers but their how well they hone the art of vileness.

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