Thursday 14 December 2017

Life imitates art imitating life

* Lookalikes, Channel 4
* The Gleneagle, RTE One
* Z Nation, Pick TV

Money maker: David and Victoria Beckham are just two of lookalikes making money from their appearances
Money maker: David and Victoria Beckham are just two of lookalikes making money from their appearances
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Ever been told that you look vaguely like someone famous? It can be mildly flattering or vaguely insulting (comedian Adam Bloom once accused me of looking a bit like Charlie Sheen, which would have been insulting if I wasn't surrounded by blow and hookers at the time), but it's the kind of thing that passes momentarily through your brain and then you move on with the rest of your day. Unless you're a professional lookalike, that is.

This parasitical industry has always been a strange and mysterious world of broken dreams, a disappointed life and the unmistakable air of vague desperation.

Of course, ever since the artist Alison Jackson started doing weird photoshoots and TV shows featuring uncanny celebrity lookalikes doing appalling things (I still shudder at the image of her Chris Evans lookalike sitting on the toilet), the idea of being a professional impersonator has been cast to the cultural wayside.

But Channel 4 have proved themselves to be remarkably adept at taking an old genre and giving it the French kiss of life - whether the genre wants or deserves it or not.

Lookalikes is undoubtedly one of the more head-wrecking programmes to have featured in the schedules for quite some time - and that's quite the achievement.

I'm not sure whether the conceit is fiendishly brilliant or just fiendish, but rather than just follow a bunch of ordinary people who make a few quid by pretending to be someone they're not, the producers decided to go full bore and introduce a scripted element to the adventures of the human facsimiles, a la Made in Chelsea.

That must have been an interesting pitch meeting - why don't we get a load of celebrity lookalikes? Cool. But we need something more. Okay, why don't we get these imposters and put them into artificially created situations where they must stay in character? Brilliant!

As a psychological study of how some people blur the lines between their real life and their fantasy existence, this was a washout. And that's a pity.

As a rather mean-spirited comedy show putting vaguely vulnerable people into increasingly absurd situations for our own cynical entertainment, it worked perfectly. And that's a pity.

Because while there's comedy gold in the sight of a talent agent telling a Rolf Harris lookalike that there's just no demand for his services anymore, it was obvious that some of the participants were more in need of some counselling than TV exposure.

Tim for example, is a David Beckham lookalike. So much so that he admits he dreams about being the real deal but then wakes up and realises that he's just a bloke called Tim with a passing - very passing - resemblance to Beckham. That, frankly, must be a form of hell.

We've all dreamt that we won the Lotto only to wake up and realise we're still as poor as we ever were, but can you imagine having that dream every night and then waking up to the grim reality that you're just another ordinary schmuck?

Frankly, that must be the kind of tortuous daily disappointment that would drive a man mad. Almost inevitably, the breakout star was a man called Tim who reckoned he was a bit like David Brent.

Not Ricky Gervais, mind. He seemed to have channelled the Brent character to the extent that it had taken over his personality, although he did a brief impersonation of Gervais' finest creation, Derek, and it was obvious that he missed the entire point of that particular character.

Deeply weird and teetering between amusing and exploitative, it did at least contain the line: "Sheeran's done a runner and Robbie Williams has gone awol."

Now if only life would imitate that particular piece of art... I must admit, I was surprised to see just how debauched the staff of The Gleneagle hotel truly were.

Satanic masses during the hotel's close season, rampant drug taking and sheep swapping were the order of the day and... no, that was just the programme as I imagined it in my head, not the one which actually turned up on the screen.

Instead, the staff at The Gleaneagle were genuinely lovely people who love their job and love the guests who keep them in that job they love. Everyone seemed nice, and the interviews with the older customers who come to the dances looking for companionship and maybe more were certainly affecting.

But The Gleneagle is simply a slickly produced corporate video, like RTE's previous, similar exercise in fluffery, The Shelbourne.

That's all fine and dandy, but it's hardly riveting television and while most people would surely wish the participants the best, why are we expected to watch them on a Sunday night?

I don't know about you, but I'm kinda zombied out at this stage.

The Walking Dead didn't just raise the bar, it moved the goalposts and it's hard to imagine any other TV show ever matching the frequently brilliant heights that show frequently reaches. The fact that there is even a spin-off from The Walking Dead due to hit the screens soon (Fear The Walking Dead) would certainly suggest that this particular market is already full.

Z Nation begs to differ and the fact that it is produced by schlockmeisters The Asylum is telling.

After all, The Asylum is the company behind such drek as the hideous Sharknado and they have have made their name ripping off successful movies and doing cheaper, tongue-in-cheek versions, so it was inevitable that they would hop on this shuffling, brain hungry bandwagon.

Mercifully, Z Nation doesn't go for the same cheap, cheap laughs as Sharknado (if you like that franchise, I hate you and all your loved ones) but it certainly has a few more grim chuckles than The Walking Dead.

Unlike its obvious inspiration, Z Nation covers the social breakdown that occurs when the zombie plague breaks out and the sight of doctors experimenting on unwilling people was rather like something from the Japanese experiments on living humans in Manchuria (check out the exploitation 'classic' Men Behind The Sun if that sort of thing floats your boat).

But the experiment worked on one human guinea pig and after he survived some nasty zombie bites, Patient Zero must be safely delivered to a lab in California where they hope to make a vaccine of his blood.

It's all daft and derivative, but undeniably diverting and any show that has a vicious zombie baby is okay in my book.

Irish Independent

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