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Punk’d – The Complete First Season (A TV on DVD Review)


The Complete First Season (MTV/Paramount-2004)

As the motor-mouthed host of the MTV hidden-camera show, Punk’d, America’s favorite spoiled brat, Ashton Kutcher, found himself the perfect vehicle. To drive this vehicle, a Von Dutch hat is required, as well as other items of self-conscious hipness, the most important being Kutcher himself.

Think what you want about Kutcher, but it’s undeniable that he knows how to bitch slap the face of young Hollywood, and for that he gets, as he would put it, “big props.”

“It makes me happy to know that Frankie Muniz is a real person,” Kutcher observes happily on the chatty commentary track to this DVD. Then he proceeds to have Muniz (the star of Malcolm in The Middle) believe that a restaurant valet stole his car.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The series only gets meaner and bolder as the stakes get higher. And the stakes must get higher: this is MTV, and its audience has the attention span of a gnat. The show is packaged as “The Great Equalizer;” meaning that the young, the pretty, the handsome and the rich fall victim to any type of prank, gag and antic short of murder-suicide pacts. We are supposed to feel satisfied knowing that it’s all in fun – hip, edgy, foul-mouthed, trashy, mean-spirited fun – and that the biggest celebrities are vulnerable, gullible, sensitive human beings, just like Kutcher and us. We’re all the same under the tattoos and the bling bling.

What we get is a high-tech/low threshold version of the old Candid Camera, but that show was happy to just raise one eyebrow, not two. Host and creator Allen Funt would often begin his introductions with “We thought it would be funny if…” Then the hidden camera hijinx would ensue: a live kangaroo placed in a ladies’ restroom. An oil dipstick that had no end, placed in a car engine. A shopping cart that moved by itself. A mailbox that had a live hand come out of it and take your envelope. It was funny because lightweight, mobile, and hidden cameras were not everywhere then. This, however, is no “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.” Now we get, "Fuck you, bro, you've been punk'd, asswipe!" Here, they want so badly for the word punk’d to become part of our cultural vocabulary that it actually does. You’ve been Punk’d, and it doesn’t tickle.

Today, Kutcher has his work cut out for him, and he gets the job done in a paramilitary/CIA style (small cameras and microphones, mobile control centers, mike wires, and lots of swearing). However, he may be too efficient: the show is so now, so today, that it feels old and stale by the second or third rerun. Some jokes are played on regular people (a tattoo artist hits on the victim’s girlfriend, two gals are treated rudely by yet another fake car valet, and yet another fake tattoo artist pretends to be blind. Yes, Punk’d is big on imitation car valets and tattoo artists.).

However, the real focus is on the flavors of the month. The victims are a Who’s Who of future Whatever Happened To’s. We get Kelly Osborne receiving foolish, outlandish style advice on how to change her image. We meet Jessica Simpson’s “long-lost relatives,” showing up as trailer trash to torment hubby Nick Lachey (“they found us on a star map,” she whispers to him). There’s P!nk being led to believe that her boyfriend (Carey Hart, the motor-cross athlete) is dealing in motorcycle chop shopping. Actor Stephen Dorff is presented with an $8,000 bar tab, while actor Seth Green is led to believe that he is involved in an illegal craps game. Bring It On’s Eliza Dushku is framed for shoplifting, and Mandy Moore mistakenly believes that she destroyed a poor sap’s mobile home. When Jack Osborne has to practically strip naked because a metal detector would not allow him to pass in peace, the “security director” asks him, “Sir, are you wearing a cockring?”

Of course, the best remembered prank (for reasons unknown) is the one pulled on Justin Timberlake. He returns to his way-too-large home to find that the “IRS” has confiscated all of his belongings (including his dog) for the failure to pay back taxes. In this not-too-pretty sight, he’s almost in tears, and he’s instantly on his cell to his mother.

On the commentary track, Kutcher states earnestly, “I was not a big fan of boy bands…but Justin Timberlake has talent. Before I did this bit, I honestly thought that Justin Timberlake was a douche bag.” Kutcher continues his praise with, “[he’s] such a fuckin’ cool guy, and, like, that shocked me.”

The commentary track is more compelling than the actual show. Kutcher and his pal and co-star Dax Shepard go off on tangents that leave you wondering if they’re even watching the screen. They hit upon such urgent but completely irrelevant topics as the effectiveness of Propecia, as well as NASA, Brad Pitt, Kutcher’s Iowa friends and neighbors, Kutcher’s childhood wrestling camp, Kutcher’s second time ever having sex (in a trailer park), Kutcher’s views on child rearing, rape (“not cool”) and Kutcher’s plugs (at least two) for his then-upcoming flick The Butterfly Effect. We also are honored to hear Kutcher’s actual farts as they happen, as well as “big ups” to cast, crew and victims, and especially to Kutcher’s business partner and Punk’d co-creator Jason Goldberg, called by Kutcher “the most handsome Jew I’ve ever met in my life.”

When they do turn to the screen and pay attention, the commentary is just as intriguing. While watching a goof at the VH1 Big In 2002 Awards, Shepard says, “[Christina Aguilera] has one of the nicest dumpers I’ve ever seen on a gal,” while Kutcher concentrates on himself: “I’m lacking in the ass department myself,” or “Most of the times I’ve seen the show, I’m embarrassed of my own self.” He also defends his constant use of truckers’ hats: “I’m just wearing them because I haven’t stopped wearing them,” or later, “why am I wearing a Boy Scout hat, by the way?”

In an argument over who looks more orange (Aguilera or Tori Amos), Shepard insists about Amos, “she looks way more orange to me than Aguilera does.” Dax Shepard’s weird and wiry charisma starts to grow on you as the series pisses on. He’s a man of many disguises, and he wins every time. Disguised as a chauffeur for Rosario Dawson (in which she is supposed to believe that she has been involved in a hit and run, but she seems a little too smart for the prank), Shepard asks her about her ethnicity. She responds, “I’m Puerto Rican, Black, Cuban, Irish, and Native Indian,” to which Shepard responds, “Oh, like a Long Island Iced Tea.”

The real scene stealer is young Ryan Pinkston. We never really find out his real age (it’s anywhere between eight and sixteen), but he knows how to work it. Usually fed lines by Kutcher through an earphone, Pinkston is a true demon. He plays the “little kid” in any sketch requiring a little extra spice (for instance, going wild through Tom Arnold’s “hidden” box of porno tapes). In a truly hilarious bit, Ryan's "father" temporarily leaves the young lad with Seventh Heaven star Jessica Biel at an outdoor cafe. Biel, though taken off guard by the unusual request, couldn't be nicer to the little boy. Little does she know that she's about to be punk'd. Kutcher delivers outrageous lines into Pinkston's earphone such as, "[I saw you in Gear magazine.] When are you gonna step it up to Playboy?" and "You should show more skin [on Seventh Heaven]." When a male pal (in on the joke) appears at Biel's table, Pinkston gets jealous and says to him, "[Jessica and I are] having an A/B conversation. Can you C your way out?"

In a takeoff of what Stuttering John used to do for Howard Stern, Pinkston attends a red-carpet ceremony and asks Eddie Griffin “Why are you such a pimp?” He also tortures an obviously miffed Johnathon Schaech with, “You’re great on The West Wing…you’re not Rob Lowe?”

Supposedly, the icing on the cake was meant to be superstar Britney Spears turning counterspy and out punking the master (Kutcher). However, the plot is convoluted and confusing, and the double-crossing is not clearly apparent, even after repeated viewings. Somehow, Britney has a signed contract that states that she cannot, by law, be punk’d and that it’s totally enforceable in every state in the Union and upheld by the courts. She instead joins Kutcher in a half-baked game of spy vs spy. The final score, it seems, is that Kutcher punks the very punks who try to punk him and he showboats about his victory, screaming about how he cannot – and will never be – punk’d. Apparently, he and Spears are the only two celebrities in America who are above being punk'd.

The DVD is eight episodes long, but it feels like a marathon. Still, there are enough bright spots and bad ass moves that you yourself come away punk'd. This is what MTV does best: manipulating, marketing, and using you without you feeling at all like you were just manipulated, used, and marketed to.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: November 13, 2004.


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