Apr 18
The Black Midget Phase
icon4 Apr 18th, 2010 | icon2 Television | icon3Comments Off

In the late ’70s and early ’80s two new faces appeared on our television screens. They looked like this:

This was when TV entered what I call its Black Midget Phase (BMP). That’s Gary Coleman on the left. He played wise-cracking Arnold Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes. On the right is Emmanuel Lewis who played the eponymous Webster.

Gary Coleman really got the ball rolling as far as the BMP was concerned, when Diff’rent Strokes became a major success, with Coleman as Arnold its most popular character. (In several countries the show was retitled as simply Arnold.) I watched Diff’rent Strokes religiously as a kid, and even then I realised something was not quite right with little Arnold. Rumours in the school playground said that he was actually a thirty-year-old dwarf, or that he had an incurable reverse-aging disease. In short, he was an adult trapped in a child’s body.

Whatever the cause of Coleman’s short stature, for some reason I’ve always assumed that Gary Coleman was indeed an adult when he was hired to play Arnold, as though the show’s producers had found a new kind of loophole in the child labour law; that is, to hire an actor with the appearance of a child but with the sensibilities and work ethic of an adult. But in fact Coleman (born in 1968) was only ten years old when Diff’rent Strokes first aired, his stunted growth caused by a congenital kidney disease. In hindsight, it’s amazing that a desperately ill black kid could rise to such dizzy heights of sitcom stardom. His famous catchphrase – What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis? – still reverberates in the minds of thirty-somethings worldwide.

And then came Webster. I was never a big fan of Webster. This blatant Diff’rent Strokes rip-off (both shows involved poor black kids being taken into an affluent white household) arrived in 1983, when I was moving onto more adult televisual fare, such as late-era Cop Shop. What made the comparison between the two shows even more acute was that Emmanuel Lewis who played Webster (full name Webster Long, now there’s a piece of trivia!) was, like Gary Coleman, a person of small stature, 12 years old when the show began. The BMP was now in full swing.

It’s difficult to find much information on Emmanuel, as even his Wikipedia entry is uncharacteristically sparse. It does give his height as 4′ 3″ – presumably his adult height, and certainly taller than he appears in this humorous clip of his appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

It’s clear that Emmanuel (then in his early teens) had a good grasp of comedic timing, presumably why he was chosen to play a smart-talking eight-year-old on Webster. But as with Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes, Webster’s precocious cuteness could only carry the show so far. Webster limped along until 1989 when it was finally put out of its misery. Thankfully it is yet to see DVD release.

Thus ended the Black Midget Phase, some would argue a low point in American sitcom history. Nevertheless, I liked the Black Midget Phase much more than the earlier Red Dwarf Phase.

Jul 20

Along with 3.7 million others on Sunday night I sat gob-smacked as 38 year old mother of three Julie Goodwin was handed the title of Australia’s first “Master Chef”. The show’s producers must have a very low opinion of their audience if they think we could not perceive the blatant favouritism shown toward the eventual winner.

In the week leading up to the finale Julie presented undercooked, sloppy, and at times downright awful dishes. Her ridiculous “puddle pie” will hopefully never be seen again. The judges could barely move the goal posts fast enough to keep up with Julie’s wayward cooking output and to ensure that she remained in the competition.

The finale continued in the same vein. Julie prepared what were variations on a familiar theme: roasted meat, simple and tasty, yet poorly presented and lacking inspiration. This is essentially the same home-style cuisine which impressed the judges at her initial audition.

Meanwhile, the other finalist, Poh Ling Yeow, presented meticulously prepared and visually stunning dishes with a startling array of accompaniments and sauces. Throughout the competition she demonstrated a creativity, intuition and artistry that set her apart from the other contestants. This originality would be her downfall.

As the finale proceeded it was clear that the fix was in. So much screen time was given to Julie as to make it appear a one horse race. On several occasions the judges stopped by her bench with helpful suggestions – sorbet too grainy, pastry too thick – whereas Poh received little assistance. When it came time for tasting, the judges lapped up Julie’s simple, dinner table fare, while Poh’s innovative dishes were greeted with raised eyebrows. With hindsight, the result was a fait accompli.

The reasons for this are clear enough. Ultimately it is the goal of a television show to make money, through advertising and the sale of related merchandise. From early on it was apparent that Julie’s story – her “journey”, in reality TV lingo – was the most marketable. And unlike other reality shows that are audience judged, the winner of MasterChef was determined solely by the show’s presenters, with the producers standing in the wings. Julie had the prize handed to her on a plate, no pun intended.

What is most preposterous is that no head chef or restaurateur in their right mind would want Julie in their kitchen. She trembled and sweated her way through every cooking challenge, rarely completing the assigned task and often presenting dishes clearly below the standards expected, not qualities suited to the frenetic bustle of a commercial kitchen.

Perhaps Julie has shown that she can cook Sunday dinner for a family of five, but she is certainly no Master Chef.