Puppets misbehave on Court TV
August 27, 2005

With blockbuster celebrity trials in temporary shortage, Court TV has had to get creative to feed the American viewing public's demand for famous people behaving badly.

So Court TV has turned to puppets. More important, celebrity puppets.

"Smoking Gun TV" marries actual stories from the popular crime-sleuthing website to a TV art form pioneered by such cheese masters as Mr. Bill of "Saturday Night Live." The weekly series is broadcast at 10 p.m. Tuesdays (repeated at 10:30 p.m. Fridays and 11 p.m. Sundays).

The premise: Puppets and marionettes and bobblehead dolls that vaguely resemble celebrities act out the celebs' various misdeeds, alleged and proven. The details are, as they say, ripped from the headlines, or rather from police records and legal documents, such as the arresting officer's account of Diana Ross' drunken-driving incident and David Gest's suit against his allegedly physically abusive former wife, Liza Minnelli.

"SGTV" looks something like a backyard show staged by 7-year-olds, but with a small budget. It features hand- painted sets and props that probably took no more than an hour to create. It's all supposed to be slapdash and flimsy to enhance the devil-may-care spirit of the show, but it makes "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" look like a Spielberg production in comparison.

Court TV programming chief Marc Juris points out the obvious advantage of using puppets to re-create events: The events themselves weren't caught on tape (indeed, several involve disputed facts), and puppets work cheap. Besides, it's not as if the celebrities were available. "Diana Ross wasn't too keen on re-creating the arrest," he said. "I think [using human look-alikes] doesn't bring any enhanced sensibility to a show."

Don't expect your fully articulated, almost-human Muppets, or your skillfully manipulated "Team America" marionettes, or even your lovable "Crank Yankers" plush toys. "SGTV's" non-human stars move like Al Gore on a dance floor. The most amusing action on the debut comes from the James Brown puppet, in a sequence dramatizing a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former employee of the Godfather of Soul (she lost).

It's possible to bump into an interesting factoid or two during some of the show's short pieces. For example, an animated segment on Sharon Stone's contract demands -- trainers and bodyguards and personal assistants and trailers and no cigar-smoking ever, ever, ever on her sets -- is an amusing side trip to Celebrity World.

But by sticking close to the legal record, "SGTV" goes light on wit and invention. Despite goofy puppets, it still has the feel of a police blotter report or a dry legal transcript. Reality doesn't always trump fiction, even when the reality involves the famous. As it is, the best (apparently invented) line is the David Gest puppet's response to Liza, as she is administering a Punch-and-Judylike beating: "If Joel Grey were here, he'd kick your [rear]."

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" it isn't.

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